Monday, December 20, 2010

Advent Reflection: With Us on Unplanned Journeys


In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.Luke 2:1

Have you ever had to take a journey you didn’t want to take? Maybe you had to go somewhere you didn’t want to go or at a time that was nowhere near convenient?

My wife Laurie and I have been on one of those unplanned journeys of late. On September 30 we had a sewage backup in our basement, and were displaced from our home for over two months. The District Superintendent “decreed” that we needed to seek alternate housing. So we had to leave, and spent almost 10 weeks in a hotel while we searched for a new place to call home. We finally found a house to move into (located around the corner from where we were!) but this necessitated packing and moving a few weeks before Christmas. Now, of all the times a pastoral family might choose to move their home, I can assure you that three weeks before Christmas is about the least preferred option.

The trip Mary and Joseph took from Nazareth to Bethlehem seems to be another of those unplanned journeys. As Luke tells the story, Caesar Augustus decided he wanted the whole world counted. That meant that every man in the Empire had to travel to his ancestral home—there was no option to fill out a census form on the Internet. Thus, Mary & Joseph were forced to embark on a journey to Bethlehem at a time that was nowhere near convenient for them. Mary was eight month’s pregnant! Taking a 40-mile journey in the late stages of pregnancy is tough enough today with all of our modern technology and comfort; imagine how it would have been 2000 years ago. Rome had established a good system of highways, but travel was still much more difficult than it is today. At best the young couple from Nazareth faced a long journey by on the back of a donkey over roads that probably weren’t all that smooth—and more likely, since they weren’t wealthy, they couldn’t even afford a mount, so they would’ve been on foot.

Stepping back a bit to take in the bigger picture, the unfolding of the familiar “Christmas Story” represents an unplanned journey on a larger scale as God comes to be with us in a most unexpected way. 

Mary certainly never expected an angel to show up on her doorstep with news that she, a Jewish peasant girl, would become the Mother of God. Likewise, Joseph certainly wasn’t planning on receiving news that his fiancĂ© was pregnant with God’s Son but that he should proceed with his plans to marry her. God was on the move in our world and this young Jewish couple was swept up in events beyond their control. The only choice they had was whether they would accept what God was bringing them—or resist it. (And really, isn’t that the choice you and I face every single day as circumstances come our way?) What we know of Mary & Joseph suggests that they were prepared to receive what came their way because they had been walking with God their entire lives. Even though the story seemed impossible to believe, they were somehow able to see that nothing will be impossible with God and receive what came to them. Mary’s response to the angel says it all: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” Luke 1:38a.

The Hallmark portrayal of Joseph and Mary and the other characters of the Christmas Story always makes them look so composed and serene? But I have to wonder if that’s an honest portrayal of the parents of Jesus? It makes a nice “family photo” as it were, but does it match the reality of their real life together?

Personally, I have much less trouble believing God is with me when the journey is smooth and uncomplicated than I do when I am forced to go to places I don’t want to go at times that aren’t convenient. I have a hunch it was no different for Mary & Joseph during that first Christmas.

Think about what it was like on that unplanned journey God took Mary & Joseph on from Nazareth to Bethlehem… and ultimately to Egypt and back home. Did they ever wonder, as my wife and I have many times on our own unplanned journey these past few months: Where are you in all of this God? I can’t believe we have to take this trip now? Aren’t you aware of our situation? Isn’t being pregnant with your Son enough, why add a long trip to the equation? Isn’t this “piling on” a bit?!

Even with all the visits from the angels to help assure them, I’m sure Mary & Joseph wrestled with a lot of emotions, questions, and doubts about how the incredible news they received would actually play out in their lives.

For example, it must have been hard for Mary to cling to the angel’s promises in the face of the ridicule and shame from family and friends that would have resulted from her being pregnant out of wedlock. Can you imagine the reaction when she finally told her parents the incredible news? I don’t think mom—and especially dad—would have been very happy with her… or with Joseph. I wonder if the trip to see her relative Elizabeth [Luke 1:39-45] was a convenient way to get Mary out of town until the baby was born? Or perhaps Mary needed to see for herself if the angel’s words about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy were true to verify the reality her own immaculate conceptionLuke 1:5-25.

And Joseph must have asked a lot of questions too. Despite the angel’s assurance [Matthew 1:18-25], don’t you think there must have been times when Joseph doubted his wife’s story about how she came to be pregnant—even if just for a moment? Might he have wondered along the way if it really would have been easier to simply do what he planned to do in the first place—divorce Mary quietly and be done with it?

In those times when my journey is more difficult, I am more prone to questions and doubt—and yes, whining and complaining. It seems God needs to remind me all the more frequently in those moments that: Yes, Alan, I am still with you; when I said I would never leave you, I meant it.

I’m learning that just because I may not “feel” God with me in a particular moment doesn’t mean that God has “left the building”. In fact my experience has shown me that even though it’s seems counterintuitive, God is often closest to me when God is hardest to see. Perhaps God is so close to us in those moments that the distinction between us blurs—as it did when Mary carried the infant Jesus in her womb for nine months. Often I realize God was in fact there with me in those moments only in hindsight when I look back and say, “The only way I could have done what I did was by God’s grace going with me.”

I think for example of the day in May 2008 when we had to say goodbye to our daughter Hope two days after her birth—an unplanned journey to be sure! I have no doubt that God was with us that day and sustained us to enable us to do what we had to do when it needed to be done. I think more recently of our 10-week unplanned journey this fall that finally led us to our new home. We never would’ve chosen this journey, but God was with us every step of the way, meeting our needs in a thousand small ways, providing a clean, comfortable place to stay in the interim, helping us find the right home for our family at the right time, and helping us get through a very difficult season with our marriage and family in tact.

Indeed God goes with us on all the unplanned journeys of our lives and doesn’t flinch when the road passes through the valleys of suffering and death. And that’s really good news, because, in a way, isn’t all of life an unplanned journey? Each day comes to us; we don’t get to preview it and skip the days that we don’t like. We can only choose to receive what each day brings and struggle to find God in the midst of it all—for God is with us always if we can but train our eyes to see, our ears to hear, and our hearts to be open to receive Christ into our lives anew each day.

God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus at a precise moment in history that we know as the first Christmas, but each of us has a chance to “give birth” to Jesus in our own unique context and circumstances every day we are alive.

I hope and pray that in time we will all learn to see God with us in every present moment and especially on the unplanned journeys that are so much a part of this life.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Risking for Hope

His was not an easy message to deliver; he was to speak the voice of a prophet. Prophets usually aren’t embraced with open arms; they typically challenge the status quo and human beings resist change, sometimes to the bitter end. It was a difficult and often lonely road for a young man to walk; but he was obedient to his calling no matter what it cost him personally. Sometimes it broke his heart to have to speak such strong words to his own people, but this was the message God had put upon his lips. He could no more deny it than he could his own name—Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet”.

God called the young Jeremiah to speak a very challenging word to a stiff-necked people—see Jeremiah 1 for the story of Jeremiah’s call. For years Jeremiah warned Judah what was coming if they did not change their ways. The people had turned from God and there would eventually be serious consequences for that decision. The people, of course, didn’t want to hear the message the Prophet proclaimed—maybe they thought, “We’ll change later…” The leaders were willing to use any means necessary to “shut up” this trouble-maker. They threw him in prison even going so far as to toss him in a deep well and hope he never managed to crawl out. Meanwhile, the people gathered around them voices who would proclaim the message that they wanted to hear. These false prophets were “yes-men” who would say “Peace. Peace” even as the dust clouds kicked up by the approaching foreign army began to drift over Jerusalem.

Needless to say, Judah did not heed the warnings of Jeremiah—the true Prophet. He poured out his heart to them; he tried to point to a hopeful future but neither did he mince words about what was coming. Perhaps he hoped that such forceful—sometimes downright shocking—language might evoke a response from the stubborn people—but it only managed to get him punished. The leaders steadfastly refused to listen, and now it was too late. The future they most feared—and a future that might have been avoided had they been willing to listen to the Prophet’s words—was now coming upon them, and there was nothing they could do. All that Jeremiah warned them would happen was finally coming to pass. The Babylonian invasion had begun!

I think if I was Jeremiah, I might well have washed my hands of the situation long before it got to this point, and said: “Lord, I tried over and over again, but they just wouldn’t listen to me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting out of here before the last gate to freedom is cut off. I know better than anyone what’s coming and you’ll forgive me if I don’t want to hang around for it…” But he didn’t do that at all. Jeremiah is a prisoner in the king’s palace as the invasion of Jerusalem begins and not only is he still physically present, but he seems to be investing in the future of a place that is about to become occupied territory as the Babylonian army marches into town and wreaks havoc in the city.

Picture this: the invading army is on the doorstep of the city; siege ramps were laid at the city walls—hope seemed to be fading fast. Destruction of Jerusalem seemed imminent. And what does Jeremiah do? Does he turn tail and run for his life? No, he decides now is a good time to make a real estate investment—see Jeremiah 32.

At a time when the vast majority of folks were making plans for a hasty exit from Jerusalem, Jeremiah chose to purchase a piece of family property in Anatoth. It would sort of be like purchasing property in New Orleans in the days just prior to August 29, 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit and so many were desperately struggling to leave town—and in fact in both cases many would never make it out alive.

By all accounts it seemed like an extremely risky investment—you might even call it stupid. Jeremiah, however, seemed bound and determined to see it through. He was convinced God had instructed him to do this. What could he possibly have been thinking?

I can only think of one answer: hope. Jeremiah purchases the field, but he seems to waiver at least a little. He is puzzled as to why God would ask him to make such a risky venture right now? In answer to his inquiry, God tells Jeremiah that a new day will come when the fortunes of Jerusalem will be restored and God will renew God’s covenant with the people of Israel. One day, says God, life will return to “normal” here—fields will be bought and sold once more in Jerusalem. What Jeremiah does here is a visible symbol that he believes God’s promise and is willing to work toward creating that hopeful future.

The Prophet purchases the field as a sign that he is willing to put his trust in a future that is at this moment completely invisible and one that probably seems humanly impossible to achieve. Jeremiah believes God when God says to him: “I am the Lord God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?”

Several hundred years later, Jesus made a similar risky investment—at the risk of sounding blasphemous, you could even say it was a pretty dumb decision on the part of our Lord. It certainly has bought with it a fair amount of grief over the centuries. But like Jeremiah, Jesus stood behind his decision then, and he remains committed today. He too was convinced God was leading him to do this. What could he possibly have been thinking? The answer I believe is similar—hope.

The risky investment I refer to is, of course, the Church. Jesus calls Peter “the Rock” on which he will build the church, and he entrusts spreading the message of the Kingdom of God to flawed human beings like you and me. Jesus knows our flaws and limitations better than anyone and yet he chooses a human institution to be the vessel through which the whole God-enterprise will succeed or fail. He entrusts his early followers with continuing and perpetuating what he started, and each generation has continued that practice. And remarkably, it has worked! The New Testament records the spread of the early Church around the known world of the first century, and we continued from there. And despite our many struggles, past and present, the Church is still the only means there is to spread the message of Jesus to the world—and so far as I know there is no Plan B for getting this done.

And so God asks those of us whom make up the Church to do the same thing he asked Jeremiah. Jesus asks us to put our trust in the Church to help bring about the future God dreams of even when that future isn’t always clearly visible and even when it sometimes seems humanly impossible to achieve it.

To be brutally honest, though, there are times when the Church seems to be more a part of the problem than the solution—it seems sometimes that we devote our best efforts to holding back the future rather than helping to make it a reality. In those moments of frustration, some of us might be tempted to think we should jettison the whole enterprise and start fresh. Maybe we are better off going it on our own in the world? Maybe the Church has outgrown its usefulness in our post-Christian world? I believe we should resist the temptation to think that way. I believe there are some problems that we can only conquer together—not as individuals. I believe that we need each other to finish the race; we weren’t meant to run it alone!

Sam: I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding onto something.

Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

Sam: That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

So what is the Church holding onto today? In a word—hope. We hold onto the same hope that Jeremiah held onto when he purchased a field in the face of an imminent foreign invasion, and that Jesus held onto when he made the risky choice to entrust flawed humans like you and me with spreading the Gospel—that there’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for. Even in the moments when the Church seems to have failed utterly and our hope fades, we will not turn back. Instead, we persevere, holding onto the belief this present darkness is temporary and a new day will in fact come, and that when the Sun shines it will shine out the clearer and what seems like an impossible dream today will tomorrow’s reality.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Should Christians Be Normal? Part II: The Early Church

In Part I of this series I talked about how our churches have a tendency to conform to the world around them as opposed to standing against the grain of the dominant culture and even going so far as to define a new normal in the world and challenge the world to follow them. (I should add that I obviously paint with a broad brush here. There are certainly local churches out there that do stand out from the crowd and offer innovative approaches for our culture, but I think I would be safe to say in 21st century America, these are the exception rather than the rule. In fact, these churches tend to stand out precisely because there aren't very many of them compared to the number of churches in this country...)

But it certainly has not always been this way... There was a time when a follower of Christ would by definition stand out from the crowd around them—that is to say, a Christian did not conform to this world. When Jesus walked the Earth, he once and for all redefined normal for all those who would follow after him. He modeled a new way in the world[1]—a radically different way of living than what the world of his day considered normal. Followers of Jesus were not only called to practice living that way amongst themselves, they were also expected to follow the example of their Teacher, and make every effort to spread that way of living in the world.

After Jesus died and rose again, these early followers saw it as their mission to continue what Jesus started. As recorded in the book of Acts, with the impetus of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost the apostles launched the Church and began to spread the Message of Jesus outward from where it had originated in Jerusalem. The growth was explosive and exponential, and within a few decades, Paul actually preached the Gospel in the very heart of Caesar’s Empire—Rome. To first century Jewish followers of Jesus, having the Message make it to Rome must have seemed like, as Luke puts it reached the very ends of the Earth. Indeed, the Way of Jesus was rapidly spreading across the world as they knew it. Just as Jesus had predicted, with his life, death, and resurrection everything had changed…

The Church that Jesus envisioned was—and is—meant to be a shining beacon of this radically different way in our world. The Early Church had a reputation for challenging the status quo in society. They weren’t content to simply conform to the cultural norms of their day; they sought to transform them.

Of course, people who want to change the world usually aren’t popular with those in power. Rulers have a vested interest in continuing the status quo. There were rare and noteworthy exceptions where leaders did embrace the way of Jesus, but for the most part, the powers that be didn’t have much use for Christ-followers; they tended to view Christians as a threat. In fact, the term Christian was first used as a derogatory term to describe what the followers of Christ were doing. As Luke put in the book of Acts: those Christians are turning the world upside down.

For the first few centuries of Church history, being identified as a Christian continued to mean that you were standing against the prevailing culture. The dominant power of that time was the Roman Empire. It was an extremely risky to be identified as a follower of Christ. Most of the early Apostles became martyrs meaning they died for their beliefs. Many early Christians faced similar fates for the practice of their faith. Quite a few faced gruesome deaths in the Roman Coliseum—fans cheered as lions devoured the hapless and defenseless Christians. In that time, it really cost something to be a Christian—often your very life.

So all this begs the question: If this is what it meant to follow Christ in the first few centuries of Christian history, how did we end up we are today? How did Christianity go from being a powerful force for change in the world, with followers of Christ willing to give their very lives to stand against the ways of this world, to where we find ourselves today.

It's a long story and the answer isn't simple, but I'll turn to that subject in my next post...



[1] Jesus often used the term Kingdom of God when he referred to this new way of living.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Should Christians Be Normal? Part I: Who Defines Normal

Our American culture is structured around an academic year. Colleges typically have Fall and Spring Semesters, and most of our culture seems to have embraced this schedule. Activities tend to start up sometime in late August or early September (when most kids go back to school and students return to college campuses) and run through the winter, taking a break for a month or so around Christmas and the New Year, and then resuming in late January and running through mid-May. Even if we aren’t students ourselves, or parents of students, we still tend to conform to this kind of schedule. We kind of do it without thinking about it—we’ve just done in the past month or so… Taking the summer “off” is what our culture considers normal.

Our churches tend to conform to this schedule. Most activities we do in our churches start up in the early fall and end in late spring—resuming in the fall when the world goes back to work and school. It’s pretty much the norm in our churches for activity to slow down during the summer—just it does in the world around us. We take it for granted that worship attendance (and thus giving) will tend to go down as different people vacation each week. Whatever activities do continue during the summer will probably note a drop-off in participation—we accept it as the ways things are. In light of this reality, church leaders often plan vacations during the summer. In some ways the decision is practical; our kids aren’t in school and many others are also away and thus won’t notice our absence. It’s usually a safe time to be away—we know things will get busier come fall when the schedule gets back to normal.

I suppose in some ways it’s inevitable that the summer doldrums is now normative in most churches—churches after are part of the culture. But it also raises an interesting question: Should our churches be conforming to what’s normal in our culture or should we be setting the standard for what’s normal and challenging our culture to follow us?

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul says that as followers of Christ, we should not be conformed to this world Now I don’t know about you, but that’s a tough command for me. I’m an introvert by nature, I don’t really like standing out from the crowd, much less trying to convince others that they should follow my lead. (I would never make it as a cruise director on a ship!) Even if I believe something different from the crowd, most of the time, it’s unlikely that I am going to say anything. People might not like me anymore if I make too many waves, and I want to be liked. They might think I’m weird if I share my opinion too loudly.

I want to be a follower of Christ, but I also like the safety and anonymity of being just another face in the crowd. And in today’s world it seems perfectly possible—and acceptable—to live that way. For the most part, you can conform to this world and still call yourself a follower of Christ. You can believe what you want in the privacy of your own home but just keep your personal views to yourself in public—you can go far in the world if you do it that way.

But I confess I find myself haunted by a nagging question: Is this the way it’s supposed to be for Christians? And after studying the Gospels and the history of the Early Church recorded in the Bible and other sources, it seems clear to me that the answer is an emphatic “No!”

So then how have we gotten to this point where most Christians conform to the world around them? That will be the subject of my next post...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Alan's Epistle to the Church in North America

One of many letters being written...

September 2010

To the Church in North America:

You have a proud heritage, one that is worth celebrating, a glorious history that must never be forgotten. I am a product of that long heritage. For almost forty years I have been a part of you in one form or another. I want my children, and even my children’s children to have that same opportunity. But I fear that if we do not change our present course dramatically, that opportunity may be lost forever. So when I speak strong words to you below, know that I speak as one of you. I want us to have a future with hope. I want the Church to live again—I want us to be all that Jesus intended us to be.

For many years, even generations, you nurtured the spiritual health of individuals, families, and communities from Atlantic to Pacific, from the mountains to the prairies, in scores of communities large and small, all across this continent. In the world of the mid 20th century geographic communities were at the very heart of daily life—and you stood proudly in the center of those communities, a visible symbol that even after two World Wars and a Depression, God was still very much with us! People were attracted to what you offered them; young and old, they came in droves. You were the place where the congregation gathered on Sunday to worship God, but also where they “kept in touch” with what was going on in the larger world outside the church doors.

But in essence what I have against you is this: When the world changed you didn’t! You failed to realize that though the Message of Jesus is eternal, the ways in which we share that Message have always been adapted to more effectively reach the surrounding culture. As the world began to change around you, as society became increasingly mobile and the definition of community changed dramatically—you somewhat naively expected them to stay the same as they have “always” been inside your doors. You dug in your heels and resisted making changes that could have made you more adaptable and responsive to the rapidly changing world around you. In fact, in many cases, you went so far as to drive away those who tried to make changes in your midst. In doing so, you crushed the spirits of many enthusiastic laypeople and leaders alike—many of whom were youth and young adults.

Long is the sad trail of tears of the brokenhearted faithful whom you were willing to “sacrifice” on the altar in order to preserve the status quo. Most of the time, these were people whose only “crime” is that they actually had the audacity to challenge you to be the Church that Jesus called you to be.

But in making that fateful choice in past decades you sacrificed more than you realized. For all those people that you drove away had strength and vitality that you desperately needed. You could have been their mentor in the faith, but instead, you were indifferent toward many of them and sometimes you actively opposed them. You were willing to do anything, to say anything to get things back to the way they had “always” been. And eventually you got your wish—all those “new” people who had been stirring things up left… and things got back to “normal”. The problem is that they took their friends and family with them—and, with rare exceptions, they have never come back. An entire generation is missing from your pews! You should weep for what you have lost but in most cases you show precious little remorse.

And to add insult to injury: When they stopped coming to you, you did not go after them! Perhaps you didn’t have the time and energy to do it. Maybe you were too wrapped up in your own internal problems at the time to go after them. Maybe given your reduced numbers, there just weren’t enough of you willing and able to go out to the places where people gather in our world today. But you are a people who can do anything when you set your mind to it, so I fear the single biggest reason you didn’t go after them is quite simple: You really didn’t want to…

Somewhere along the way, you became content with the status quo. What has been most important to you recently is preserving the way things are until you are no longer here. To that end, you’ve chosen to devote your increasingly limited time and energy to maintaining your aging and outdated structures rather than reaching outward to draw in new people to the Kingdom of God.

But now, you’ve begun to reap the consequences all the shortsighted choices you have made over the years. Your youth and vitality are virtually gone; you’ve lost the flexibility and adaptability that used to make you attractive to the world. You also increasingly lack financial resources to actually do meaningful ministry in the world. Though there are still moments where God works in powerful ways in your midst, you often appear impotent to address the real problems that this world faces—heck, it was all you could do to pay the electric bill last month. In a world that is increasingly post-Christian, people increasingly view you as irrelevant to their daily lives.

You once stood proudly in the center of your communities. People were attracted to you because they saw something they wanted to be part of. Now, you are a mere shadow of your former self—sometimes quite pathetic looking to the passer-by. And no matter how hard you try to freshen up things, you can’t fool the world for very long. The stench of death and decay permeates you; your bones are old, dry, and lifeless, and people generally aren’t attracted to something that is so obviously dying—at least in the form we presently know it.

So God asks you the same question God asked the Prophet of old: Church, can these bones live again? The brutally honest answer: no one knows for sure. I believe in you; I always have; I have been part of you my whole life and I can’t give up hope now. Some say I am a wide-eyed optimist and that may be so. Regardless, it doesn’t really matter what I think. It’s more important what God thinks—and God has always believed in you. In a real sense, God’s only Son believed in you so much that he was willing to gave his very life that you might be born, and put his trust in you to spread the Way of Jesus around the world.

So I think it’s clear that God would have you live again; but to do so, you will have to actively choose life. And the way of life is usually found only by passing through the valley of death. If you truly want to live, you’re going to have to embrace a whole “new” way of being you. (It’s actually a very “old” way and really the only way you can ever truly be what Jesus created you to be.) To enter this new way will require you to “die” to the old way—which is scary because it’s the only way you have ever known to be you. This will probably seem quite radical to you, more change than you could possibly endure in one lifetime—but of course part of why it seems that way is precisely because you’ve put off changing for so long!

But frightening as this “new” way may seem, nothing less than radical change can help you now. Incremental changes and band-aid fixes have been tried and failed. They simply haven’t bought about the kind of renewal and healing you seek and the kind that God longs to see.

God’s desire is that you would be a community of people set apart to serve the world, a community united in your love for God and for one another who gather together throughout the week to participate in worship, prayer, fellowship, study, and other spiritual practices that help prepare you to be sent forth to live out your calling in the world.

If this vision sounds like a strange way to think of yourself, it only shows how far you have strayed off course. If you truly desire to live again you must once again become what Jesus intended you to be—a place where the veil between Earth and heaven thins and Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God becomes tangible and real in our midst. You must show the world examples of how the Way of Jesus can actually offer more effective means of responding to the world’s major crises than the dominant ways of this world. If you did this, the world couldn’t help but take notice. They would once again see in you something that they would find attractive and want to be a part of—your dry bones could indeed live again!

This is my fervent hope and prayer for you—the Church in North America...

Yours In Christ,


Alan B. Ward (Baltimore, MD)


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Coming Together Under a "Big Tent"

This summer the churches my wife (and I) serve are doing a preaching series based upon a book written by Adam Hamilton called Christianity’s Family Tree: What Other Christians Believe and Why? In this series we are looking at what a couple of United Methodist congregations in Southeast Baltimore might learn from other Christian denominations—as well as from our own. On the whole, I think it’s been a good experience for our churches. We’ve gotten quite a bit of positive feedback.

Now, the purpose of doing this series was not to suggest that we should give up our unique denominational identity as United Methodists and join hands with all other Christians to sing Cum Bah Yah. As much as Jesus prayed for unity among his followers, I don’t think this kind of literal joining together will happen—nor do I think it needs to. Over the two millennia since Jesus walked the Earth, his followers have always disagreed and divided. In fact, studying the “family tree” reminds us that in many ways, these disagreements are what have defined us—especially in the West. So to say our differences don’t matter at all would not be a realistic assessment of our present situation.

But on the other hand, I do think that a series like this reminds us that, once we get to know our brothers and sisters from other faith traditions, we actually discover that there’s a whole lot of “family resemblance” between all of us. To say it another way: all Christians have common roots in Christ. And even those beliefs and practices that may at first seem to be very different from ours don’t have to bitterly divide us. If we choose to, we can actually learn from them—and they can learn from us—and in the process, perhaps we can all embrace a more generous orthodoxy[1] without ever compromising our unique identity.

It is in that spirit that Christians from all over the world will gather in Raleigh, NC on September 8-9. Some two-dozen leading Christian speakers from around the country will be participating. They will share new and innovative forms of church-based ministry and renewal—new ways of being and becoming the church in the time and places where we find ourselves. The conference hopes to cast a vision for how we can speak even more powerfully in and to the post-Christian world of the 21st century, a world where denominational identities no longer carry the same meaning that they used to. I think the conversation they are going to have is extremely important, and one worthy of our prayers, and our participation. We may not be able to be present personally, but we should definitely pay attention to these and similar conversations that are taking place all around us—if we can only tune our ears to hear.

Many of us realize that our churches are less than we wish they were; many are a shadow of their former selves. The reasons for the decline, especially in mainline churches, are complex and multi-faceted. We have lost members, we struggle to attract youth and young adults, and we struggle to keep up with the rapidly changing post-Christian world outside our doors.

Can this damage be repaired? As God once asked the Prophet Ezekiel: Can these bones live again[2]? Those of us who have been in the church for many years ask the same question. We hope the answer is Yes, but to be honest, we aren’t sure what the future holds for Christianity[3].

There is recognition from most Christians today that the world is rapidly changing and the church must also change in response[4]. The question we don’t all agree on is: How do we do it? In the late 20th and early 21st century, a conversation has begun within the various streams of Christianity to wrestle with this very difficult question and the myriad of other questions that follow from it. The conversation seeks to be inclusive as possible—thus it needs to take place under a “big tent”. J

If you consider yourself a follower of Jesus—whether you are Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or “other”—you are invited to join the conversation. You don’t have to stop going to the church you currently attend; you just have to be willing to participate in the dialogue, in whatever context you currently find yourself. The aim here is to have a conversation, not to start another denomination[5].

I believe that it is through this kind of inclusive dialogue with other Christians—some of whom may at first glance seem very different than us—that we become more well-rounded followers of Christ, better equipped to follow the way of Jesus in our rapidly changing post-Christian world. I might also add that I think we need this diversity of Christian perspectives if we ever hope to effectively address the daunting global crises that we face in our world today—almost all of which have spiritual roots.

My personal experience suggests that as we expose ourselves to the beliefs and practices of other Christians, we stand a better chance of becoming the kind of people (and the kind of church communities) who actually do the things that Jesus did on a regular basis, as opposed to simply learning about those kinds of people on Sunday morning. We become people who more naturally live as Jesus would if he were living in our time and place, and who are ready to be sent forth to live out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) today—baptizing others and teaching them to obey Jesus. We can then invite these people to add their voice to the Spirit’ed dialogue that has been going on among followers of Jesus for over 2000 years, and by God’s grace will continue for many years to come.

I believe that the emerging conversation has the potential to breathe new life and vitality into the Church universal. The question is: Will we take a deep breath and inhale this fresh wind of the Spirit or continue to hold our breath until we suffocate? The choice is ours….. by God’s grace and mercy, may we choose life, may we breathe deeply and live again!



[1] Orthodoxy means correct belief. In this context, I refer to what we believe and why, and how those beliefs shape our perception of God. The term generous orthodoxy—from Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy—is just another way of suggesting that exposure to the beliefs and practices of other Christian denominations—and maybe even other religions—doesn’t have to be a threat to our identity, but rather can help enrich us, broaden our perspective of God, and give us a better appreciation of our unique identity.

[2] See Ezekiel 37:1-14 for the story of Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones.

[3] To be clear I believe God’s Church will go on, but I think many local churches will not survive as presently constituted. To frame this more positively, when the “dry bones” come to life, the walls of our existing churches won’t be able to contain them. “Church” is perhaps returning to its roots; it is less about a place we go and more about a life we live

[4] Christians believe that the message of the Gospel transcends time, but that we must constantly adapt how we deliver the unchanging message of Jesus in a world that is constantly evolving and changing.

[5] In fairness, many movements that eventually became denominations actually started out with the same goal. For example, the Methodist movement in England began as a conversation within the Anglican Church. It remains to be seen whether the emerging Church can successfully plot a different course.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Spirit'ed Dialogue

A common adage in our culture is that when you have a conversation with someone, you should stay away from two things: religion and politics. I think this is a reaction to how polarized these two issues have become—and perhaps always have been. In a way, though, it’s unfortunate that religion and politics have become such divisive issues, because if we come at things from the right perspective, conversations about these “controversial” topics can be quite interesting and informative. Sometimes, these conversations can actually bring people closer together, rather than drive them further apart.

Taking the risk and engaging conversations about such controversial topics—as opposed to avoiding them like the plague—might give us all some much-needed perspective on many of the issues that so often polarize and divide our secular and spiritual communities.

When we surround ourselves with like-minded friends, and never really associate with anyone who holds religious or political views different than our own, we tend to “paint” pictures of “the other side” using broad brush strokes and become convinced that our crude pictures are accurate representations of reality—i.e., it’s much easier to demonize someone when you don’t know them personally.

As long as things remain impersonal, the divisions between us and them can remain clear-cut—there is white and there is black and never the two shall mix … We are thus free to cast judgment on these faceless others; we can devote all of our time and energy to defending our ideology at all cost, winning arguments with our opponents, and clinging relentlessly to our version of the truth on a given issue—no matter what.

But the minute we start to get to know the living, breathing human beings on “the other side” it complicates everything—in short, it makes life messier! All of a sudden the boundary between us and them blurs considerably. We begin to see all kinds of nuances of gray that we never saw before when we were so consumed with defending the gospel according to us. We realize the people that we previously rather callously classified as them are actually honest, hard-working, intelligent, and sincere people a whole lot like us—their only “crime” is that they happen to see a particular religious or political issue differently than we do. In this new context, winning an argument doesn’t seem nearly as important as it used to; now searching for common ground with our new friends seems far more important.

Engaging in this kind of honest and transparent dialogue with others is not always easy, but doing so helps us realize that someone is not inferior to you simply because they don’t share your specific views on a particular religious or political issue.

In a specifically Christian context we might call this kind of dialogue Holy-Spirit-led debate—or if you like, Spirit’ed dialogue. (We United Methodists actually refer to it as holy conferencing.) Sometimes through this kind of inclusive conversation, we come to realize that the differences we thought were so irreconcilable aren’t nearly as big as we made them out to be. But many times, even after such Spirit’ed dialogue we still end up divided at the end of the day. Hopefully, however, even when we can’t reach an agreement on the issues that divide us, we can agree to disagree while at the same time maintaining civility, dignity, and respect for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ on the “other side” of the argument[1].

This kind of Spirit’ed dialogue or conversation seems to be a hallmark of the so-called “emerging” Church. The emerging Church is really more about a conversation than it is about forming a new denomination[2]. As the word emerging suggests, it represents something that is not yet fully born—it seeks to give expression to a new form of Christianity that has been emerging in the late 20th and early 21st century.

There is recognition from most Christians today that the world is rapidly changing and the church must also change in response[3]. The question we don’t all agree on is: How do we do it? The emerging Church invites everyone who calls upon the name of Jesus around the world—be they Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or “other”—to come together and wrestle with this very complex question. We don’t have to sacrifice our individual denominational identity to join this emerging conversation (in fact, we as we interact with people from other faith traditions we may actually find that we appreciate what makes us unique all the more) but as we get to know people whose beliefs and practices are different than our own, we discover something interesting. We find that the denominational labels that used to rigidly define us and thus divide us in the past aren’t nearly as important as what we all have in common—our core identity as followers of the way of Jesus.

Some accuse the emerging Church of rejecting all that has gone on before and trying to start over from scratch—throwing the baby out with the bath water if you will. They argue that the emerging Church goes too far to try and accommodate our post-Christian world. But as someone who considers themselves to be emergent[4], I don’t find that to be an accurate characterization. I think that often times the people that make these accusations never actually take time to find out what the emerging Church is all about. As mentioned earlier, when we don’t have personal experience with someone—or in this case, something—we tend to “paint” a picture of them using a broad brush. And as is often the case, a picture “painted” with such broad strokes may be insufficient to provide an accurate representation of the emerging Church.

I would argue that the emerging Church is simply doing what followers of Christ have done since the very beginning. They seek to learn from the Christian traditions and rituals of the past and apply them in new and innovative ways that are relevant to the context of the present.

I believe that the Spirit’ed dialogue that the emerging Church has begun has the potential to infuse new life and vitality into the Church universal. The wind of the Spirit is blowing—the world is changing around us. The question is: How will the Church respond? Will we open the windows and allow the Spirit’s freshening breeze to blow through our midst, or close up the shudders tightly continuing to breathe the same stale, stagnant air we’ve breathed for decades? One choice focuses on securing a future with hope for future generations; the other seeks only to preserve the status quo.

I believe that it is through engaging in this kind of inclusive dialogue with other Christians—some of whom may at first glance seem very different than us—that we become more well-rounded followers of Christ who are better equipped to follow the way of Jesus in our rapidly changing post-Christian world. My personal experience suggests that as we expose ourselves to the beliefs and practices of other Christians, we stand a better chance of becoming the kind of people who actually do the things that Jesus did on a regular basis, as opposed to simply learning about those kinds of people on Sunday morning. We become people who more naturally live as Jesus would if he were living in our time and place, and who are ready to be sent forth to live out the Great Commission [Matthew 28:18-20] today—baptizing others and teaching them to obey Jesus. We can then invite these people to add their voice to the Spirit’ed dialogue that has been going on among followers of Jesus for over 2000 years, and by God’s grace will continue for many years to come.


[1] For a good discussion of finding common ground on a number of these divisive religious (moral) and political issues see the book Seeing Gray in a Black and White World by Adam Hamilton.

[2] Many movements that eventually became denominations actually started out as conversations within the existing church of their day. For example, the Methodist movement in England began as a conversation within the Anglican Church. It remains to be seen whether the emerging Church can successfully plot a different course.

[3] Christians believe that the message of the Gospel transcends time, but that we must constantly adapt how we deliver the unchanging message of Jesus in a world that is constantly evolving and changing.

[4] Being emergent is less about the church you attend on Sunday and more about your mindset all week long. There could be emerging Christians in every local church—emerging Methodists, emerging Catholics, emerging Presbyterians, etc. On the other hand, some emergents wouldn’t identify themselves with any denomination.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Breathe Deeply and Live Again


"[Christianity] has two lungs, it will never breathe easily until it uses both of them".

Pope John Paul II (1988)

Human beings need air to live; our lungs provide play a pivotal role in keeping us alive. We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide about 20,000 times in an average day. Imagine how many times you’ve done it just while reading this paragraph. J

We usually don’t think consciously about breathing unless for some reason our ability to breathe is impaired. A frequent expression we use to indicate that after you practice a given activity for a while, it becomes easy to do—e.g., riding a bicycle—is to say: “it’s as natural as breathing”. When you think about, is any activity is more natural than breathing? It’s so fundamental to whom we are that, most of the time, we do it without conscious though.

Human beings have two lungs, and we are designed such that we function best when both of them are functioning at full capacity. While we can survive with only one functional lung (or even less) we cannot operate at our full capacity. We learn to compensate for the reduced airflow; we adjust our lives accordingly—but it gets harder to breathe.

As an example, my wife has mild asthma. Most days she is fine, but her breathing capacity is more limited and thus she has to pay more attention to breathing than the average person does. It’s much harder for her to do aerobic exercise than it is for me, a non-asthmatic. There are days (such as when air quality is poor) her breathing is more impaired; she even occasionally has to use an inhaler to help clear her lungs. Colds and other respiratory ailments impact all of our breathing, but they are especially challenging for those with asthma. Again, it’s harder to breathe when our lung capacity is limited.

There’s another organism that breathes. It has two lungs and it functions at its best when it breathes deeply from both of them. But for a very long time it has been only using one of its lungs. It’s been going on so long that the organism has learned to compensate and get along “pretty good” on the one lung; it doesn’t even realize what it’s missing. In fact in many cases, the organism is living on just a small portion of one lung. It could breathe in so much more life and vitality if it simply recognized and learned to utilize the full capacity of the one lung—much less if it actually realized that it was born with two fully functional lungs and made an effort to reconnect to the missing one.

You’ve probably guessed that the organism I am speaking of is the Church. The two lungs I refer to are the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity[1]. The Western lung has been carved up into Roman Catholicism and the many Protestant denominations—hence I say that many Western Christians actually breathe from only the small portion of the Western lung that constitutes our particular denomination. Truly, we are handicapped! The Eastern lung comprises the Orthodox Church and while it has remained more unified over the centuries than the Western lung, for over 1000 years it too has been breathing with limited lung capacity.

The two lungs of Christianity have been separated for so long, that for the most part, we have all but forgotten that we ever had two lungs. Most of us living in the Christian West have very little concept of or contact with Orthodox Christianity—including the author. Likewise, Orthodox Christians aren’t familiar with Roman Catholic and/or Protestant practices. Like the human being who loses the use of one of their lungs learns to compensate for the handicap over time, so we Christians have learned to compensate and “make do” with the limited lung capacity we had. Each branch developed independently and had different theological emphasis based on the culture in which they developed[2]. There is much to commend (and yes, criticize) in both Eastern and Western Christian thought and practice. But overall, considering the limited lung capacity of each, both branches of Christianity have done remarkably well.

Many of us realize that our churches are less than we wish they were; many are a shadow of their former selves. The reasons for the decline, especially in mainline churches, are complex and multi-faceted. We have lost members, we struggle to attract youth and young adults, and we struggle to keep up with the rapidly changing post-Christian world outside our doors.

Can this damage be repaired? As God once asked the Prophet Ezekiel: Can these bones live again[3]? Those of us who have been in the church for many years ask the same question. We hope the answer is Yes, but to be honest, we aren’t sure what the future holds for Christianity[4].

Consider this: Is it possible that our limited breathing capacity has contributed in some way to some of the long-term decline in our churches? Consider what might happen in our churches if we all learned to breathe more fully? What might we learn from other denominations that could enrich our experience of God and breathe new life into “dry bones”? What buried treasures might we unearth as we study the beliefs and practices or our own denomination in greater detail?

For Christians in both the East and the West, the other lung has lied dormant for so long that it’s hard to imagine learning to breathe through it. It wouldn’t be easy to learn to breathe through a lung that we’ve never used before. Like anything, new it would take some getting used to—and lot’s of practice! But imagine the good that might result if we did—for us and for our world. Do you think it might be worth putting forth the effort to learn?

This summer, the churches I attend are doing a preaching series based upon a book called Christianity’s Family Tree: What Other Christians Believe and Why? In this series we are looking at what a couple of United Methodist congregations in Southeast Baltimore might learn from other Christian denominations—as well as from our own.

We’re hoping, as a result of this series, to gain a deeper appreciation for our fellow Christian “family members”. Some of them are already fairly familiar to us—like close relatives we see fairly frequently—wile others aren’t nearly as familiar—they are more like distant family. However, if we go far enough back on the family tree, we discover that all Christians share common “ancestry”—i.e., we have common roots in Christ. In fact, as we get to know these more distant family members a little better, we might find that we have more in common than we ever realized. And even those things that are different don’t have to divide us. (It depends on what we choose to focus on.) We can learn from them—and they can learn from us—and in the process, perhaps we can all embrace a more generous orthodoxy[5] without ever compromising our unique identity.

Perhaps your church could benefit from the kind of study that our churches are doing right now. You may wish to consider doing something similar in your faith community. Surely every one of us could stand to “stretch” ourselves theologically and develop a more generous orthodoxy—to use the terminology we have used in this article, we could all stand to have our lung capacity increased.

So I encourage you to take a deep and cleansing breath. Ask God to open your lungs and help you breathe more fully. Try to exhale all the preconceived notions you may hold about those “other” Christian denominations; open yourself to what God wants you to learn from them. I hope by doing so we will begin to discover the beautiful diversity of God’s family, and the unity we all share in Christ, and that this helps us each appreciate our unique place on Christianity’s family tree all the more. As we inhale deeply, I pray that the Holy Spirit will breathe life into us again, transforming our desolate valleys of dry bones, where the stench of death and despair abound, into places teeming with life and hope that carry the sweet and unmistakable aroma of Christ to all the world around us.

Can these bones live again? With God’s help and by God’s grace let it be so…


[1] I borrow this terminology from Pope John Paul II (see quote at top of the article) who actually put forth considerable effort during his tenure as leader of the Roman Catholic Church to heal the centuries-long breach between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches that has existed since the Great Schism of 1054 AD.

[2] Differences between East and West have been present since the very beginning, but became exacerbated after the fall of Rome in ~476 AD and climaxed with formal separation between East and West in 1054 AD.

[3] See Ezekiel 37:1-14 for the story of Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones.

[4] To be clear I believe God’s Church will go on, but I think many local churches will not survive as presently constituted. To frame this more positively, when the “dry bones” come to life, the walls of our existing churches won’t be able to contain them. “Church” is perhaps returning to its roots; it is less about a place we go and more about a life we live

[5] Orthodoxy means correct belief. In this context, I refer to what we believe and why, and how those beliefs shape our perception of God. The term generous orthodoxy—from Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy—is just another way of suggesting that exposure to the beliefs and practices of other Christian denominations—and maybe even other religions—doesn’t have to be a threat to our identity, but rather can help enrich us, broaden our perspective of God, and give us a better appreciation of our unique identity.