The Cross, or Why We Need It

ImageOne of the most awkward silences in liberal Christianity is its relative silence on the cross.   Far too many of us avoid discussing the cross, the meaning of the cross, and how sin shapes our lives.

What’s fascinating is how little both sin and the cross come up, even when progressive Christians passionately speak of peace & justice.   It is difficult to impossible to understand the path to peace, and the work of justice, the nature of oppression or consequences of poverty without reckoning with sin, the meaning of sin, and the death of God in our world.

Christians committed to seeing God in creation, other religions, the arts, and human experience might consider the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written in a letter from prison less than a year before his death by the Nazi’s.  It is dated July 16, 1944.

Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison)

One of the reasons liberal Christians struggle to talk adequately about sin and the cross is the loud voice of American Evangelicalism.  Evangelicalism in America projects a well-known and well-funded salvation formula.  It is fear-based, triumphalist, and relies on our culture’s rampant individualism, self-interest, and personal choice.

The traditional evangelical message drowns the cross in bloody images.  It narrows sin to rhetoric about Jesus’ gracious death for our personal salvation.  The greatest tragedy of this message is its violent theology and contorted invitation:  “God so loved you and me that he sent his son to death.  Don’t you want to be one of God’s children, too?”

Another problem is that this message assumes God’s complete control over human life and the effects of sin in the world.   It presents the power of God in absolute categories: God’s unqualified love for us, God’s absolute control over human life, over-and-against our hopeless and irredeemable human depravity.   The “good news” of the Evangelical formula begins with certain bad news:  In sin, there’s no way out.  The threat of hell makes the bad news both personal and emotional.  Then, the invitation to salvation follows.

ImageWe must believe the story of Jesus behind the formula to receive salvation.  But, the whole transaction is in the abstract.  The story explains our dependence on God for grace in order to overcome our abysmal sin.  Yet, the whole transaction is based in a metaphysical drama.  There is an unpaid debt that everybody (and we personally) hold with God.  God is demanding and has an unappeasable sense of justice.  So, God sacrifices his son to appease himself.   Somehow, that’s grace.  If we personally believe this  backstory then the transaction is secured; hell is averted.  The heaven we imagine is also ours, albeit after death.

I have a problem with this transaction.  But, the best response to the story is not to reject it out of hand.  Certainly, a formulaic transaction that meets both our own and God’s self-interest has deep-seated problems.  Not the least is its spiritualization of American self-interest in one’s own personal salvation.   But, the story conveys both a witness and wisdom from the ancients.  There is theology to mine from this story, and it is a gift.

Against the dismal view of human nature in this salvation formula, many Christians believe human beings are essentially good.    Individually, this may be true.  However, history paints a picture of collective human life that perennially descends into epic violence, power struggles, and unnecessary injustice.   The story of our sin and the cross speaks directly to this history.

Individuals may be generally good, fair, and generous.   But, zoom out and consider the global economic and political structures that shape human relationships, and a more difficult picture of human life appears.   The disparity of human conditions, inequality of power and life’s resources, and the suffering of masses while a few benefit paints a tangled world.   In our society of abundance, oppression far and near reflects the emptiness, struggle, and longing we often suppress in ourselves.

As individuals we might hold to the belief that we are born good, but sin is inextricably embedded in the structures of our world.  The economic and political relations that make up the world, materially and spiritually, make this so. Sin is relevant because we are inescapably in relationship with each other and every other human being.  Globalizing economic and political realities ensure this.  Even those who’ve gone before us and will come after are affected by our spiritual and material relations.  The cross holds the truth about God in this web of human history.  The unnecessary deaths of poverty and genocide, our dependence on economic luxuries and a lucrative weapon’s industry, and our need for wealth shape a world where sin and the effects of sin hold sway.  Even our definition of freedom, which often stands behind our political and economic arrangements, enmeshes us in sin. As long as freedom means freedom from responsibility for others and the world we create, sin twists freedom into human indifference.

Only a God who knows the suffering of such indifference can save us from our want for that kind of freedom.

Metaphysical answers and narcissistic guilt distract too many Christians from deeper considerations of the material relations of our world and spiritual realities of our shared life.  The ancient world, like our modern one, was a world of empire.  Empires persist, then like now, on an order enforced with violence.  They were sustained through economies driven by disparity and exploitation, as well as power relationships in which power was distributed by privileged access.  Whether Pax Romana or American Freedom, the promises of empire are never universally fulfilled or equitable.  Power & privilege define peace, what is just, and who receives justice.  Some conform and cooperate to thrive, other to survive.  Others challenge and resist the spiritual and material order.  The cross is a potent and public reminder of what happens to those who disturb the peace of empire or challenge power.

In Jesus, God was and is inextricably entwined in this world.  In this world, individual sins are inseparable from structured sin.  The fate of God in our world is told in Jesus’ story.  The awaited messiah, Word of God made flesh, came to bring God’s reign without weapons or worldly power.  But, God in Jesus was “pushed out of the world on to the cross.”

Many Christians, like me, live privileged and abundant lives.   My education, healthcare, legal protections, and economic access are privileges.  It is not that I don’t “deserve” them.  Rather, they are privileges by definition that not everyone enjoys them.  Many of us are shielded from the material conditions and political realities of others who afford us our privileges.  In America, freedom also means we can drown our perceptions in a world of media, personal desires, and accomplishments that reinforce our belief that we are innocent, free, self-made individuals.   Such are the doctrines of classical liberalism (both “liberal” and “conservative” varieties) and consumerism.     Sin and the cross deeply challenge people like me to consider whether my sense of innocence, personal freedom, and individuality are God’s gift to me or a result of history – a history of conquest, empire, and enforced peace.

The nagging questions of Christian faith are unpopular in an opulent age like ours:   “What is sin?”, “Do we need salvation?”, “Why the cross?”, “Did Jesus have to die?”  Regardless whether I see my life of privileges as the gift of God or the gift of empire, this life is my inheritance.  What is my responsibility?  Should others share in my life’s abundance?

Many Christians dodge the cross and Evangelical salvation formula by emphasizing the Good News revealed in the life of Jesus.  Emphasizing the miraculous life and ministry of Jesus, instead of focusing on the “good news” of his bloody death, is important.  It bears critical insights.  Certainly, Jesus’ promise of eternal life is not simply afterlife; it is now.  Luke is clear: the Kingdom is within us; it is in our midst.  (Luke 17:21) In our lives, we do meet the Christ of the gospels.  We certainly meet a living God alive in the life of Jesus Christ.  Discipleship means believing upon him.

ImageBut, on the cross we also see God crowded out of this world.  The cross is God’s death.   The cross is not an indictment against the Jews.   It is a prophetic message to all of God’s people in every time, particularly Christians.  Christians profess they have ears to hear the story of Jesus.  Jesus’ cross is the naked truth about the peace and promises of life together under empire.  It reveals worldly power in its naked structures of exclusion, abandonment, and death.   The cross reminds us that we live in a world where God’s justice has yet to reign.   The blood of Jesus is the blood of every forced and unnecessary death.  The blood of Jesus is the suffering let from every false choice the world gives:  Jesus or Barabbas, empire or chaos, you or me.  The cross is the story of every victim, prophet, teacher, and martyr who seeks eternal life here and God’s Kingdom now.  Jesus’ blood is the blood of the poor and impoverished that flows in silence in the noise of consumer culture.  It is also the blood of those who rise in protest, only to be put down by force of those who reign.

The cross stands against our culture of individual isolation, personal privilege, and limitless consumption.  It also stands against religion shaped by our culture: its personal salvation formulas, self-interested transactions, and overinvestment individual will.  The cross is a symbol that disturbs our conscience.   On the cross, Jesus is both God and flesh.   His death is the death of every person.   (Consider II Corinthians 5:14)

Eventually, all – even God – come to the cross.   Some come as victims.  Some come as casual observers.  Some come awakened from their isolation and innocence.  Others come as the soldiers and servants of empire.   We come not because we are individually guilty or to blame, but because we cannot make a new world alone and need a way beyond sin and death.    Jesus lifted up the invitation, “Take up your cross and follow me.” (See Matthew 10:38, 16:24; Luke 14:27; John 21:19)  Without knowing the sin and cross in our lives, resurrection loses is meaning.

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God, or belief

Lately, I’ve felt the need to clarify some things.  Parker Palmer helps me understand this feeling in terms of my soul (Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness).  I believe my soul yearns to speak.  Writing is a way I can listen, and listen deeply.

My search for faith is central to my life.  It is a search that continues even as I write.  My search continues to lead me into some kind of testimony.  Some who read this might think that I’m talking about personal religious convictions.  But, that risks misinterpreting me.  It misses the depth of my search, its personal costs, and its impact on all that is.   Faith does not occupy some corner of my life.  Faith is not limited to religious identity, abstract doctrines, and metaphysical questions.  Life is experienced.  It is concrete, relational, sensuous, and palpable.  Faith embraces all these things.  In my soul, I want to express my life in terms of faith.   My heart quietly aches to express how I understand life  – who I am, who I am in this world, and who I am in relationship with others.  God is the one thing that makes any sense out of all these things.  So, that’s where I’ll begin.

I believe in God.  But, as important as my belief might be, it does not answer the right question.

American culture approaches religion in a particular way.  Historically, it obsesses on questions of belief.  When I was a child, believing in God was important.  I was asked about it alot.  I grew up in a Christian community.  It was dominated by a particular Christian denomination.  The church I was born into didn’t quite fit in.  My father was a committed Community of Christ member.  My mother was also a member of Community of Christ, but she grew up in the dominant church in our community.  It was a costly change of membership for her.  I was often asked about my belief in God from family, friends, and other church-goers.   A lot seemed to hang on this question.  My answer conveyed the state of my eternal life or immortal soul.  It also revealed what team I was on.  If I said I believed in God, I was at least in the right game.  I may not be a true believer, but at least I was not a lost soul needing salvation or, at worst, the enemy (atheist, humanist, pagan, even Mormon or Catholic).  A true believer meant that I believed in God, and I was a Christian like them.

No one ever said it to me as a child.  But, I learned early on that Christians often ask others about their belief in God not for theological dialogue.  Rather, it tell believers where others stand – where they stand with God, stand with religion, and which religion.  Belief in God is an important faith question.  But, when it’s asked primarily to determine someone’s identity, it betrays the question.  At some point, questions about faith and God went deeper than religious identity for me.  As I struggled with deeper questions, the distinction between faith and religion became clearer.   The longer I labored, the distinction between religious questions and questions of faith grew.  My questions changed and the answers changed.

When I was a child, religious questions and faith questions were more or less the same.  But, faith led me beyond religion, itself.  My search for faith took me beyond the religious questions that were once defined for me.  Life led to religious crises and other crises.  The need for faith moved beyond religious answers.  Life posed problems that made the need for faith more urgent, more encompassing, and distinct from strictly religious answers that limited God to religious problems, abstract ideas, or personal beliefs.

I am at a point in my life when I feel the more important question is not whether I believe in God.  The more urgent question is whether God believes in me.  Does God love the world?  Is God in everyday life and its vast imperceptible web of relationship?  What relationship do I want with God (the incredible possibility of God!)?  Do I seek God in daily life?  What is God’s Spirit doing?  Will I allow faith to affect me – how I look at myself, interact with others, and act in the world that shapes me?  Is God at the center of my relationships?  How much of all that is in my control?  How much is totally out of my control?  How much of the world is God and how much is the world bearing down on me?  After I answer these questions, what do the answers really mean?  Does the faith I was born into and its resources shape some answers or who I yearn and strive to be?

This brings me back, once again, to religion in search of new answers with different questions.

The subtle shift from focusing on my belief in God to God’s belief in me and the world is profound.  The change in orientation is a turnaround.  It requires a different way of thinking.   Me, my identity, the religion I come from or now belong to is no longer the chief starting point.   Instead, the scope is broader.  Life dictates where I start, then I must consider what faith asks of me.  Where is God, the possibility of God, and the meaning of God in the world?  I find myself less concerned with religious questions – if that means topics that limit God to religion, isolated communities, abstract ideas, or personal beliefs.  I am more concerned with what faith means in life.  There are so many questions.   I must consider the struggles over the fundamental relationships that define me and my life.  Faith reaches beneath the world’s definitions, its definition of religion, and religious appearances.  Religion eventually turns into faith questions.

My life’s journey has been a path of conversion.  I was born Community of Christ.  I was born a Christian.  I am now a convert to the search for meaning in God.  Born a Christian, I later discovered Christ.  I made the religion of my birth my own by transcending it, then returning to it.  I have a new relationship with Christianity and the world from which it comes.  Instead of having faith in my religion, I seek its source of faith.  This means going beyond our world’s way of knowing and its categories – including that of religion.  Neither I nor the world can limit God to religious spheres and mere personal perspective.  All this betrays the call to faith before it’s begun.   While the word “wrong” my scare some, I’m not interested winning a war of words.  Rather, I fight to defend the true meaning of faith.  We cannot simply constrain faith or God to narrow religious definitions or isolate them to personal opinions.  To do so is a distortion.

Do you believe in God?  As important as it seems, this may not be the primary or final question.  Does God believe in us?  Does God believe in the world?  Does God persist in the world despite our efforts to control and deploy its resources in our own way and for our own purposes and advantages?  To even consider “yes” as an answer requires the seed of faith, whose growth will bring you well beyond narrow definitions of religion.   That’s where conversion and reconversion begins.

wrestle until you’re blessed

From Genesis 32:24-30

24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face…”

This is one of the most memorable stories in Genesis.   It’s also one of the most interpreted.

Who is the man Jacob wrestling with?  Is it God?  An angel?  His own conscience?  A thief?  A demon?  And, what is the

struggle over?   Is it preparation for reunion with his brother Esau?  Is Jacob wrestling for his life?  For a blessing?

The passage is also about naming.   When spoken, Jacob’s name resembles the Hebrew word “to wrestle.”   The man asks Jacob his name, but he renames him Israel, which means “God strives” or “‘the one who strives with God.”   Jacob also asks the man his name.  But, no name is given.  We are only told that Jacob is blessed.   Then, Jacob names the place he wrestled a name that means “the face of God.”

When I was at a week of church meetings a couple of weeks ago, I was struggling.   The meetings I was a part of were very institutional.  They dealt with administration, policies, funds and fund raising.   The meetings were important from an institutional perspective.  But, the meetings also went 8-10 hours a day for three days.  They were so large that there wasn’t an opportunity to disagree, question, or participate in the decisions being made.  Though, an invitation for feedback was made.    I was around friends I loved and respected, but I felt very alone.  A depressing question kept haunting me, “Is this life with Jesus?”   Despite all the opportunities afforded me through church, I wondered again if there was really a place for me?   This seems to be an ongoing spiritual struggle.  At a low point, I remembered the  story of Jacob wrestling.  It was as if the Holy Spirit befriended me and slipped me a note.  “Wrestle until you’re blessed,” were the words I heard.  These words came to me in a way that I knew they should define my entire relationship with church.  “Wrestle until your blessed.”  Do it at every service, every meeting, each week, each day.

I’ve had similar struggles when I am in local congregations.   On the one hand, I’m lucky.  I enjoy many different kinds of worship.  I enjoyed mass for four years in Catholic school and fell in love with the tradition.  I spent years going to church with my Dutch grandparents at a traditional Reformed service.   I spent four years attending high Methodist liturgy in seminary, another 6 years at lively congregationalist services at another.   I’m comfortable around people whoopin’ or being slain in the Spirit.

But, I also am in an age group  that really never claimed church or recreated it in its own image.   The examples are sparse.  Compared to generations before me, most of my peers abandoned church or at least denominational committment and congregational life.  By in large, they have not stayed around to create churches that reflect GenX skepticism, spirituality, or sense of relationships.  I’m very much in touch with that part of myself, too.   This explains why I’m never fully at home even in congregational life and worship services.  Like everyone else, I’m looking for my place.

Most of us have a complicated relationship with church, if we have a relationship with it at all.   As a professional minister, theological-type, and aspiring disciple of Jesus, I even do.  As I struggle to feel at home or find space for myself in denominational life or congregational settings, this ancient story of Jacob wrestling brings meaning to it all for me.

Wrestle until you’re blessed.  Even if you get kicked in the groin (see Gen 32:25 above), stay with the struggle.  Expect to be blessed.

the Covenant, ours together and ours with God

I started to add running to my morning exercise about a year ago.  At first, it started as just adding a ½ mile jog onto the end of my 3+ mile walk in the morning.  A year later, without pushing myself hard, I run/jog the majority of my 3+ mile route usually 2x a week.  It’s been a rewarding journey learning how to pace myself and trust my body as someone who’s overweight, an ex-smoker, and diagnosed with asthma at 15.

The time I spend exercising each weekday morning along the Lake Michigan shore is time I spend with God.  The team of ministers I work with have made a covenant, which includes living our discipleship and upholding each other and our mission for about an hour each day.  As I walk or run, I’m often in prayer, feeling the frustrations of my life and/or focusing on our team praying.  I also try to listen, to allow myself to be spoken to by God through my thoughts, to see God in the sunrise over the lake or the behavior of the water.  Sometimes, it lies motionless.  At other times, waves crash against the seawall where, at points on my trail, sea spray hits against my skin.  This morning, however, I heard God in a different.  God spoke to me through shutting out my surroundings.  In doing so, I had a brush with divine wisdom that I needed for today.  I want to share it with you.

On the mornings I chose to run, I often push myself.  I’m either tired from the day before and need to force myself to run through my fatigue.  Or, I try pushing my endurance and breathe a little harder, which is very rewarding when I am done and I feel the release in my legs and body.   Running can have a calming effect on my day that way.  If I do this often, my morning run changes the character of my time with God.  My prayer and medication is more based on feeling my way through.  I strive to find God in the run.  My thoughts focus on the meaning of my physical pain, the fatigue of my legs, and my thoughts compete with obsessions about how far I’ve run, whether I’ve reached the mid-way point, or how far I am from finishing when I can cool down and walk the rest of the way.  Pushing myself has a spiritual quality to it.

I often feel that all of us in denominational ministry, especially serving the Community if Christ, are running a marathon in our work with the church.  The pain and frustration I feel from pushing myself as I run can be the same experience of pain and frustration I feel emotionally as I try to fulfill people’s expectations in my role in ministry.  Whether preparing a sermon, running a meeting, or just trying to do the right thing by a church member – all in an environment of denominational decline and dwindling resources in which our problems are too big to respond to – I hit points in my role in ministry in which I just look for the finish line or obsess about how far I have to go before I can stop.   I’m looking for a break from the jurisdictional responsibilities and congregational problems that our North American church, as a whole, are facing.

I had a different experience today, though.  As I ran this morning, I began a little tired.  I had a 13 hour day yesterday.  And, on Sunday, I was a part of closing one congregation and at another that is trying to be reborn.  I had my mind on some relationships and projects that I’ve been trying to get control of and successfully complete.  Taking a different tact today running, however, instead of pushing myself I decided to pace myself because I wanted to run a little longer today.  During my time with God as I jogged, I felt God talk to me.  It didn’t come through the beauty of the lake or my meditations on God.  The moment of communion and epiphany came when I felt divine wisdom intersect with my body’s feeling and prayers as I was jogging.

Almost ½ way into my run, I realized I was really enjoying it.  Yes, I was tired.  My legs were fatigued and felt a bit heavy.  But, I was pacing myself and my body felt good.  I emotionally felt up and I wanted to keep enjoying that feeling.

As I continued to jog, instead of enjoying the beauty of the lake or the sun rays I could see descending through the cloudy morning sky, I closed my eyes and shut out all that was around me to focus on the enjoyment of jogging.  My eyes peeked open every few second just to make sure I stayed on the trail and didn’t run into cyclers or other runners on my path.  But, for the vast majority of those couple miles, I kept my eyes closed.  I didn’t focus on how far I’d run or how far I had to go.  I simply enjoyed the running.

I felt God speak to me through the experience about the pace of my mind and of my life in all this.  This wasn’t a mental exercise or logical conclusion I came to.  It felt like a moment of revelation – revelation for that moment, for today, for what I was struggling with at this point in my ministry and my walk and run through life.

As I serve in this call to the church, I don’t have any idea how long it will take before I see things turning around for my congregation, the congregations I serve, or the North American church in general.  I don’t know how long it will take before the decline and contention seems to end.  I don’t know if the search for good pastors or volunteers for church camps will ever become easier, or if there will be a change in momentum.  I don’t know how many congregations I will help close or watch struggle for direction.  I can’t see the finish line for this job, nor any sort of mid-way point.  And no amount of short-term accomplishments will change the overall trends.  All I can do is keep running.

But…if I pace myself, discipline myself to stay with the Covenant, discipline my life to pray for and seek community with others, I won’t only learn to enjoy the run.  I can learn to close my eyes and take my mind off the obsessive search for signs of change, for finish lines, and half-way points.  I don’t have to rely on my eyes to find meaning or see what I can only trust in faith, whether it be new life or just plain relief.

There is no finish-line in ministry any more than there is a finish line with Christ.  Ministry, like discipleship, is not a series of tests on fulfilling others’ emotional or scriptural expectations, or test of organizational accomplishments.  We are called to trust less in these criterion of success or fulfillment and, instead, on the covenant.   Covenant and discipleship are Christian code words for a different kind of life and different kind of community than our world offers.  It is measured in completely a different way.

True.  Life, and life with others, remains a marathon, of sorts.  But, we cannot measure our progress solely on what we can see.  It isn’t always about finding God in the beauty of our surroundings.  Sometimes, there is more tragedy than beauty.  We also cannot give into staving off life’s despair and difficulties by setting artificial goals with discernible mid-points and finish lines.  Ministry, like discipleship, requires that I learn to close my eyes and trust in what I cannot see.  Living in covenant with God and others requires trust, which is only learned when we can pace ourselves and enjoy the journey.  The Covenant, like our life’s journey, is sure.

Christ has crossed the finish line and continues on that we might learn to walk/run with him each day.

it’s not about tithing, but it is about the money…

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been tackling problems that don’t revolve around ethereal stuff like “new ideas,” “vision” and other theological talk that can lack consequence.  In fact, I’ve been so sucked into these challenges that I’ve begun to wonder whether discussing the church’s problems or their solutions really matters if the people in the discussion aren’t somehow personally and materially invested.  They, somehow, need to be givers or prepared to become givers to what we share.  A giver gives so much more than money.   But, they give money, too.  They give to something beyond themselves.

It’s not that discussing our feelings and perspectives on church isn’t  important.  But, if the people talking about the church are thousands of dollars in consumer debt or unable to substantively invest in community with their time or energy, I’m afraid airing our views – no matter how thought out and accurate – may hold only therapeutic value.   Don’t get me wrong!  Therapy is important.  But, like any other therapeutic or academic exercise, it revolves around perspectives on “the self.”  Therefore, it suffers, at some point, from the vacuum created when the self replaces shared discipleship or Christ’s call to prophetic community.  This is the vacuum slowly sucking the life out of denominationalism:  loss of a sense of shared community, shared discipline, shared practices, and shared convictions with substantial consequence.

I realize I may sound like I’m going either institutional or conservative.   But, I meant what I said in my previous post about following Jesus or saving the church.   I’m not talking about returning to some institutional position on tithing.   I’m not talking about a pay-to-play system in the church or instituting stringent requirements for Christian membership.   But, I am talking about the problem of “cheap church” and a loss of a basic sense of discipleship in community.  If our sense of faith and Christ’s community has become so separated from our relationship with our stuff, our time, our money, and energies, that we think belonging to Christ’s community is an entitlement or a service that should be provided by denominations or religious institutions, the Spirit of our movement is lost.

So, let’s talk about the money.  Why not?

We struggle on both sides.  In the church, we have many congregations that are deeply attached to their houses of worship.  75-90% of the time, those churches are paid for.   These buildings are the ebenesers, the alters, of a previous generation.  They are the hallmark of our denominationalism.   We are no longer a frontier movement.  We now have our church on the corner.  This was the success of previous generations.   Because of them, I would bet 75-90% of our congregations have no mortgage, only maintenance and monthly bills.   Five to fifty gather in them once a week.

Often, these same congregations have difficulty raising funds for missional ministries, hiring ministers, or community projects.   Also, paying for their area campgrounds are a drain.   Often these congregations have faithful givers.   Some have less money to offer and more time and skills.  Sometimes these loyal members get in the way of new life and spiritual direction.   But, sometimes these members are more than willing to see change.   The hurdle is that, after a lifetime of denominational loyalty, they do not know how to reach out, innovate, and add to the fold.   So, they maintain.  The history of decline takes its toll.   An increasing sense of need might pull downward on the congregation’s self-esteem.  In the worst case scenario, members become entrenched.  They start guarding against outsiders, usually “liberals,” denominational leaders who talk about “change,” or those “generic Christians” who might take away what’s left of our identity.  (I still don’t know what a generic Christian is, but I’ve heard church members be worried about them more than once.)  All awhile, money and time is where their mouth is – pouring into the things we think “we” need, for “us” – both on the congregational, mission center, and personal levels.

Outside the church, we also live in a day when the relationship between spirituality and economics is wholly out of whack.  Unbriddled greed and a world sold out to the god of wealth and wealth-production, has horribly contorted the relationship of our economic and spiritual needs.   All around, I see its effects in “liberal” and conservative forms.    Many Christians have literally sold out the doctrine of economic wealth and prosperity:  we can spend ourselves out of crises, whether spiritual or economic.  This not only makes absolutely no sense, wealth and prosperity – no matter how American – are false gods.   They are not the good news, but a completely alien form of religion and spirituality.   Christian faith and the call to prophetic community operates on a different kind of sense.    Christ’s community is not based on getting what you pay for.  Nor, is its growth based on profits or consuming more.  The salvation of the church, on earth as it is in heaven, is based on what is given and what is shared:  the shared grace, disciplines, practices, vision, and shared convictions.  The church is a witness to community.

We don’t need a moralistic return to a 10% tithing to fix this.  In fact, everyone can tithe and still sell out to the economic gods.   We don’t need a denominational membership system to hold people accountable.   This would be the same old legalism.  We also don’t have to start giving guilt-ridden presentations about how much money it takes to heat the sanctuary or pay for copy toner.  That would be guilt-based politics.  However, if we’re going to get together and talk about who we are, who we follow, and what our shared salvation really means, we have to agree that Christ’s community costs us something.   And, we have consistently lift up what it promises.

Discipleship costs.  And, to some extent, it is about the money.  But, it’s not about the money so the church can have alot, or any.  It’s about the money because money is the god of the world we must face. We no longer live in a biblical world where land dictates wealth and the majority are subsistence farmers.  For many of us, our economic well-being is no longer tied directly to the earth’s fertility or patterns of rain or drought.  Instead, for the first time in human history, we suffer the “weather” of an almost wholly (not holy) (hu)man-made economy.   Our global economy is designed on the idea that human beings have insatiable appetites for things.  Selfhood, selfishness and self-interest can be paths to earthly salvation and human improvement.  This religion measures health on the flow of goods and happiness on levels of consumption.   It has its own doctrines and spirituality.   It requires that we spend and spend often in order for the god’s elect to reap their fruit: profit.  They hire us to help them do that, and we are glad that it also benefits us.

Praying for the “rain to come” and for the harvest to be plenty in our world means paying homage to this religion and god of profit.  There is little getting around it.   We have to charge, buy, mortgage, refinance, and spend.   The problem is that this god will also bankrupt us if it is the God we live by.   This god has many many victims.  If we do not put something sustainable and communal at the center of our work, life, and play, this god, alone, will have its way and its reign.  The best insurance against this kind of idolatry is Christian community, a community that shares and gives.   To find it, we must give a portion of what we have away.

That is why the church is such an important vessel for Good News, sanity, and sanctuary in our world.   Christ’s call to give was never about denominational tithing or supporting a clergy class.  But, it was about where our faith could be.  The discipline of giving, even just a little, puts us in a stronger position in a world that believes profits puts us in a stronger safer position.   It puts us in a stronger position against religious economic doctrines that tell us we can spend our way to spiritual happiness or economic wholeness.  This is not the faith or the doctrine of Christ’s church.  Discipleship is not concerned with how much we earn or measuring our profit.  Nor, is it about salvation through gaining what can be had by spending.    But, it is about the money.

Christ owned no land, which meant he was broke.  He was an artisen, a blue collar carpeter, who never mortgaged a home.  He had no inheritance, but the inheritance of God’s kingdom.  Christ gave so that others could have and give.  Christ gave so that others would have something to take and share.  This was the miracle of his healings, his feeding of the 5000 and 4000, and the last supper.  It’s about the power and mystery of giving.

This the the open secret: the power and mystery of Christ’s giving.  Christ’s community is about this kind of sharing.  Giving and sharing makes community.  You don’t do one to make the other.  They happen simultaneously and it strengthens every time you repeat it.

In our world, a prophetic community must give and share.  And, it will always have more than a community that does not, that instead proclaims the good news of profit and blasts us with pictures of happy consumers who say “follow me.”    We cannot spend our way to financial health any more than we can borrow our way to a full life or spiritual wholeness.   The answer isn’t about denominational tithing or shopping for personal spirituality, but it is about the money.

Money will always be more than just credit, consumption, and profits.   Money always already has spiritual value, too.   It’s about the costs.  Expecting something from nothing makes no more sense economically than it does spiritually.   This is not faith.  Christ’s community is a divine gift, but it does not come from nothing.  Rather, it is a result of our stewardship and what we will share.   The church is a divine gift that can never be spiritually taken away.  However, it will always be what we make of it.   We are the church.   That is what takes faith.  Unlike the world, Christ’s economy is not based on getting what we pay for, wanting more, or making profits.  These things aren’t evil in and of themselves.   We just realize that after feeding of the 5000 (Matthew 14:16-26), Jesus “leftovers” were not his profit.  They were the abundance left over when the least of these, a boy with five loaves and two fishes, shared a little.

For Katy, On Your Baptism

IMG_0342Dear Katy,

You are being baptized this Sunday.  Wow.  I come to this event with so many feelings.  Mom and I are so proud of you, but not just because you are being baptized.  We’re  grateful because we couldn’t have asked or planned a better journey to your decision.  You made this decision on your own – in your 8 year old way.

Mom and I feel we were baptized when we were 8 years old for not the best of reasons.  Other people were doing it.  We wanted to take the bread and grape juice at church.  We knew it would make others proud.  Because of this, we didn’t want to put any pressure on you.

With the reunions and camps we go to each summer, however, we knew you’d see others be baptized.  So, we began teaching you the things we wanted you to know if you asked about it.  We wanted you to know who Jesus was and what following him meant.  We talked to you about sitting in church more, and not going to the play room.  We told you, following Jesus meant being friends with some of the kids you didn’t like at school, or with those other kids picked on and didn’t have many friends.  Mom remembers one conversation with you when you began to cry, “But I can’t do that!  I don’t want to be _____’s friend!  He’s mean!”   In that moment, you realized following Jesus wasn’t easy to do.  It was too much for you.  Mom and I let it go.  Then, something happened at reunion this summer that changed things for you.

Mom and I will not forget that night in our little pop-up camper.  It brought tears to our eyes.  You and Kenzlee had been actively attending Kevin’s campfires at family camp all week.  You guys loved campfire.  One particular night, you came back from campfire and after brushing teeth came to bed.  Campfire was always the last thing you did at camp before bed.  That night, because I hadn’t seen you guys much that day, I asked what your favorite part of camp was that day.  You and Kenzlee answered right away, almost in unison.  “Campfire!”  Kevin Henrickson was doing a wonderful job with campfire that week.

Then, you began to tell us your simple testimony.

IMG_0467During campfire that night, you said felt something touch your heart.  You were singing songs, looking into the campfire, and you said, “I felt Jesus in my heart.”  You then blurted, “I just want to get baptized right now!”  Mom and I listened.  The feeling we felt with you in the silence after was hard to describe.  You just said, “I just felt Jesus in my heart.”  We knew it was special because when we taught you about Jesus, we didn’t talk about your relationship with Jesus in those terms.   We taught you the stories.  We shared our love for Jesus.   But, tonight, you felt something in a way that lit your face and changed your heart.  Mom and I were touched so deeply and in ways we didn’t expect.  We began to remember the first time we felt the Spirit, when we felt something bigger than ourselves in and around us.  We remembered what it was like to feel Jesus for the first time…to feel Jesus and his love in us.

After you were born, I remembered the nights I often prayed for you in college.  For some reason, I was worried about the future at that time in my life.  I prayed for you, the companion I had yet to meet, and the children I might have some day.  I prayed with such earnestness and would do so from time to time.  I remember, I prayed one thing more than anything else for my children – that they would have a relationship with God, the God I knew and changed my life.

I think you are on that road.  I can only praise the God of life and proclaim my belief that something, somewhere, profound, wonderful, real, and beyond all knowledge is present and real.  I call that God.  When that God is with us, it is Jesus.

microchurch

This is the paradox.   Neither Jesus nor Christian faith is going out of style.  Not really.  I’m going by memory, but as I recall, people such as the Pew Trust, sociologist Christian Smith, and even the Gallup folks all tell us people do believe in God, do want to know what God and the scriptures to do with their lives.

The problem is that how we go about those things and to whom do we turn that is changing.

Specifically, denominationalism and corporate denominations are less and less important to faith.  I, for one, experience it most everyday as a denominational minister.  I am 35 and I’ve known the church that helped raise me and shape my view of God and the world be in decline all of my life.  My personal research helped me understand that officially, membership in my church in the U.S. began declining in 1980.  The trend remains in a downhill slope since.

By Namaska on Flickr

By Namaska on Flickr

Church-going practices actually started changing decades before.  Many babyboomers were baptized in the churches their parents brought them to, but huge percentages didn’t remain actively involved.  The 1960’s, the crisis of social and moral authority of churches in the sexual revolution and Vietnam War, all contributed to radical questioning about the real importance of churches as institutions.  We live in the wake of those questions today.

Alot more could be said.  But I want to cut to the chase.

As a minister, I’m not ultimately interested in saving the institutional church.   Institutions are important.   In the end, they can and serve the purpose of church.  But, I don’t confuse the gospel for institutional religiosity.

By kwerfeldein on Flickr

By kwerfeldein on Flickr

I do, however, believe in community.  I’m with the bible on this one.  I believe in the inseparable union of faith and human community.  It’s a biblical thing.  God and the Gospel go together, just like faith, salvation, and your present relationships.  I know God is real because of, not in spite of, our relationships with others.  Without relationships, Jesus’ call to discipleship and everything he says about enemies, peace, and love are just metaphysical niceities, religious ideas that go well on embroidered pillows and wall hangings.

I don’t believe the essential importance of Christ’s call to faith and spiritual community is not ultimately being threatened right now.  What is being threatened is the way we go about it.  Institutional denominations, corporate denominationalism, even Sunday Morning service are no longer the spiritual anchors they used to be.  Jobs, family, financial demands, and civics demand alot more flexibility from the church.  Churches, right or wrong, have to compete.  And, while this cultural shift may be a significant loss for America’s churches – they ultimately don’t have to be.  Think about it.  The opportunity we face is staggering.  We have the opportunity to see God unleashed into new forms, new spiritual practices, and new ways of gathering.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” – Matthew 18:20

One of the struggles we seem to have as “church folks” is how to break out of the church model.  How do we break out of the idea that God is more than a Sunday thing?  How do we take church with us wherever we go?…put it in our pockets?…and make the blessings of our faith community available everyday?

I want to make a small contribution to solving this problem.  It’s a small idea.  A humble offering.  But, ultimately I think its just as much as part of discipleship as bible study and Sunday Morning.  I call it microchurch.

Microchurch is easy.  You can do it in 5 minutes, even less.  You can do microchurch on twitter, on facebook, at work, or between classes.  All you need in another person.  Microchurch gives you a chance to breathe a minute (Spirit means “breath”), remember who blessed us with our day, and let faith put things in perspective.

Microchurch is two or three people doing these four things.

1.  Gather.  Make your congregation of two or three.  Find a microchurch partner.  Meet in the hall between classes or do it over lunch.  If no one’s around, do it with who follows you on twitter.

By G. & A.Jimenez on Flickr

By G. & A.Jimenez on Flickr

2.  Rejoice or Release. Then, rejoice in a God-moment or release a burden.   This is like the “Good News” and “Prayer concerns” part of your service.  But, it’s simpler.  Tell about something or someone in whom you saw the living Christ today or since you last met.   Maybe it was in the sunrise, or a kind word between strangers.   Whatever.  Just, rejoice about something.  Or, release.  Release a burden you’re caring.  It doesn’t have to be a mountain.  Molehills are fine.  Something small, or something big.  Maybe you’re worried about the way something you said came across.  Maybe you’re having relationship trouble, or a friend is really depressed.  Whatever it is, release it.  Bear your burden with another.   Rejoice or release.  Do it whenever you can.   Faith is exercised in community.  Do it everyday.

2.  Pray. Next, pray.  Lift up the burden you released or thank God for your day.  Force yourself to make God’s Spirit a part of your mindset.  Talk to God.  Even if it is for 30 seconds or a moment of silence.   Talk and listen.  Remember the One who created you, gave you this moment, and Who is the hope of all things.

3.  Resolve.  Finally, resolve to commit an act of discipleship!  Resolve to do something for the Kingdom that day.  Jesus preached about his Father’s business.  The Kingdom is hidden in little acts of faith.  Think about your relationships.  Really consider forgiving someone.  “Forgive us as we forgive others.”  (Matthew 6:12)   Or, break the mold and hang out with the bruised, broken-hearted, or outcast.   Sit with someone new at lunch.     Vow to do something for the environment.   Sacrifice a coffee and make a small donation.  In short, live your discipleship in some small way that day.  Tell your microchurch partner what you’re going to do.  They are your accountability partner for the day.  Faith without actions is empty!  (James 2:17)  Resolve to do something for Christ.  If you want, at your next microchurch, you can tell what happened.  You’ve got something to “rejoice!”

So there it is:   Rejoice/Release, Pray, Resolve.  5 minutes.

It doesn’t matter what order you do it in.  Just do it.  It can take just 5 minutes.   You can do it on twitter.   When you do, you’re doing church.  You’re living your faith.  You’re growing in discipleship.  You’re doing something terribly biblical:  putting together faith and life together.

Microchurch won’t replace bible study, praise & worship, or breaking bread together.  But, it’ll let you have church wherever, whenever, every day.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” – Matthew 18:20