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)

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