Archives For Grace

0*d2f2HygwLJiosgbZMost of you are probably familiar with Fred Phelp’s Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, the image of angry ‘Christians’ picketing funerals with signs reading ‘God hates fags’ will most certainly ring a bell. In fact, I’d wager that the evangelism dollars spent by all of Christendom over the last 10-15 years have been a waste when compared to the ubiquity of Phelp’s hate-mongering. To a huge proportion of the unchurched public, Phelp’s message and methods are Christianity.

Even though they’re not.

My first encounter with Westboro Baptist Church came when I was in seminary and Phelp’s crew was in town to picket a local Episcopal Church. Their level of anger seemed almost alien. I mean, no one’s that angry, all the time, right? Only self-righteousness could provoke such contempt.

So I was surprised to discover this story floating under the radar. Fred Phelp’s two granddaughter, Meghan and Grace Phelps, have left Westboro Baptist Church.

They’ve left the church. They’ve left the church’s teachings, They’ve left the endless schedule of protests and pickets, which they’d participated in since childhood. They’ve left their hometown. And their family.

What happened?

According to Meghan, she finally discovered how wrong her family and church had been by listening to a rabbi talk about Jesus.

It’s a great story. No, it’s a hopeful one that has the potential to be great.

This story a warning that not every church and not everything in church is holy, and it’s a reminder that God’s grace can and does come to the most unsavory of characters.

Just after 11 last Sunday morning at Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, the Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter is starting the Sunday service as he always does. He runs through the opening salutation and the collect for the day, and then he welcomes everyone to church as he always does, introducing Old First “as a community of Jesus in Park Slope where we welcome people of every race, ethnicity and orientation to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.”

The congregation—some eighty strong on this sunny but cold February morning—is the usual mix of Park Slope churchgoing types: a smattering of journalists, a few artists, a handful of old ladies, some rambunctious children. But in the back row of the tin-ceilinged, wood-floored hall, there’s a visitor. It is Megan Phelps-Roper’s first time not only at Old First but also at any church not called Westboro Baptist. Yes, that Westboro Baptist, the Topeka, Kansas, congregation that has become famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) for its strident views on sin (and the abundance of it in modern America), salvation (and the prospective lack of it), and sexuality (we’re bad, in far more colorful terms).

For nearly all of her twenty-seven years, Megan believed it: believed what her grandfather Fred Phelps preached from the pulpit; believed what her dad Brent and her mom Shirley taught during the family’s daily Bible studies; believed (mostly) what it said on those signs that have made Westboro disproportionately influential in American life—“God hates fags”; “God hates your idols”; “God hates America.”

Megan was the one who pioneered the use of social media at Westboro, becoming the first in her family to go on Twitter. Effervescent and effusive, she gave hundreds of interviews, charming journalists from all over the world. Organized and proactive, she, for a time, even had responsibility for keeping track of the congregation’s protest schedule. She was such a Westboro fixture that the Kansas City Star touted her—improbably, as it turns out, because a woman could never have such a role at the church—as a future leader of the congregation.

Then, in November, she left.


I first met Megan in the summer of 2011, when I went to Topeka to spend a few days with the Westboro folks for my book project. During that visit, we talked about faith, we talked about church, we talked about marriage (and Megan’s feeling that, given the prospects, it would require no small amount of divine intervention in her case), and we talked about Harry Potter (for the record, she’s a fan). She seemed so sure in her beliefs, that I could not have imagined that some fifteen months later, we’d be having a conversation in which she tearfully told me that she was no longer with her family or with the church.

Mostly, the tears have subsided—“in public, anyway,” she says one afternoon, as we sit in a Tribeca café. “I still cry a lot.” Forget what you know of the church. Just imagine what it is like to walk away from everything you have ever known. Consider how traumatic it would be to know that your family is never supposed to speak to you again. Think of how hard it would be to have a fortress of faith built around you, and to have to dismantle it yourself, brick by brick, examining each one and deciding whether there’s something worth keeping or whether it’s not as solid as you thought it was.

As we talk, Megan repeatedly emphasizes how much she loves those she has left behind. “I don’t want to hurt them,” she says. “I don’t want to hurt them.”

Her departure has hurt them already—she knew it would—yet there was no way she could stay. “My doubts started with a conversation I had with David Abitbol,” she says. Megan met David, an Israeli web developer who’s part of the team behind the blog Jewlicious, on Twitter. “I would ask him questions about Judaism, and he would ask me questions about church doctrine. One day, he asked a specific question about one of our signs—‘Death Penalty for Fags’—and I was arguing for the church’s position, that it was a Levitical punishment and as completely appropriate now as it was then. He said, ‘But Jesus said’—and I thought it was funny he was quoting Jesus—‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ And then he connected it to another member of the church who had done something that, according to the Old Testament, was also punishable by death. I realized that if the death penalty was instituted for any sin, you completely cut off the opportunity to repent. And that’s what Jesus was talking about.”

To some, this story might seem simple—even overly so. But we all have moments of epiphany, when things that are plate-glass clear to others but opaque to us suddenly become apparent. This was, for Megan, one of those moments, and this window led to another and another and another. Over the subsequent weeks and months, “I tried to put it aside. I decided I wasn’t going to hold that sign, ‘Death Penalty for Fags.’” (She had, for the most part, preferred the gentler, much less offensive “Mourn for Your Sins” or “God Hates Your Idols” anyway.)

What “seemed like a small thing at the time,” she says, snowballed. She started to question another Westboro sign, “Fags can’t repent.” “It seemed misleading and dishonest. Anybody can repent if God gives them repentance, according to the church. But this one thing—it gives the impression that homosexuality is an unforgivable sin,” she says. “It didn’t make sense. It seemed a wrong message for us to be sending. It’s like saying, ‘You’re doomed! Bye!’ and gives no hope for salvation.”

She kept trying to conquer the doubts. Westboro teaches that one cannot trust his or her feelings. They’re unreliable. Human nature “is inherently sinful and inherently completely sinful,” Megan explains. “All that’s trustworthy is the Bible. And if you have a feeling or a thought that’s against the church’s interpretations of the Bible, then it’s a feeling or a thought against God himself.”

This, of course, assumes that the church’s teachings and God’s feelings are one and the same. And this, of course, assumes that the church’s interpretation of the Bible is infallible, that this much-debated document handed down over the centuries has, in 2013, been processed and understood correctly only by a small band of believers in Topeka. “Now?” Megan says. “That sounds crazy to me.”

In December, she went to a public library in Lawrence, Kansas. She was looking through books on philosophy and religion, and it struck her that people had devoted their entire lives to studying these questions of how to live and what is right and wrong. “The idea that only WBC hadthe right answer seemed crazy,” she says. “It just seemed impossible.”


The act of leaving Westboro is as weird as the church itself. Sometimes it’s described as a shunning process, but that’s not entirely apt. It is, in the eyes of the remaining members, a sort of death, but it’s a gentle one, because the carcass isn’t just dumped or ignored. One church member, who has lost two of his kids to the outside world, told me that he still loved them and that he set them up as best they could with what they’d need to start their new lives—some money, some household goods, even a car.

Megan didn’t leave alone; her sister Grace decided to go with her. They stayed just one night in Topeka. Then, after returning to their family home to retrieve some things they’d not packed the night before—“it was so weird and horrible to ring the doorbell,” Megan says—they left town.

They decided to disappear for a while, and found rooms in a house in a tiny Midwestern town. They needed space—to think, to read, to imagine what had previously been unimaginable. Their lives had largely been scripted, and “now that we’re writing our own script, everything seems a lot more tenuous,” Megan says. “We needed to think about what we believe. We need to figure out what we want to do next. I never imagined leaving, ever, so I never thought about doing anything different. I have no idea what kind of work I want to do, or where to live. How do people decide these things?”

Once a constant Tweeter, she hasn’t posted anything online since October. “I don’t know what I believe, so I don’t know what to say,” she explains. “I haven’t been ready to talk about any of this.” She’s only doing so now, and briefly, because, she says, “I was so proactive before and vocal about the church. My name means something now to others that it doesn’t mean to me. I want people to know that it’s not now how it was.”

But how is it going to be? She’s still not sure. They’ve been trying new things; one of their housemates made sushi one night, the first time Megan tasted raw fish (“yum!”). They read a lot—“I liked ‘The Sun Also Rises.’ There was a quote that was perfect for where we were: ‘Wonderful how one loses track of the days up here in the mountains.’ And you know what else I loved about it? I could be completely mistaken about what the book means, but where the book began and where it ended was the same. It makes your problems seem like small things. It gives you perspective—well, it gave me perspective, that my problems in the grand scheme of things are not as horrible or monstrous as they seem.” They talk to each other for hours each day, about religion, about God, about the Bible, about the future, about how to treat people, about “what’s right and what’s wrong—capital R and capital W.”

Click here to read the rest.

 

priest_collarOkay, so some of you give me crap about always being snarky, sarcastic and cynical. So, I thought I’d do a decidedly uncynical series of posts: Top Ten Things About Being A Pastor.

#1: Grace Happens

Before I graduated from Princeton, Dr Robert Dyksta, my theological Jedi master, lamented that I was about to serve in a denomination whose system of appointing pastors ‘contradicts everything we know about psychology.’

I asked what he meant and he replied by explaining how it’s a given that people in congregations wear masks, keep up pretenses and are reluctant to let others see what’s behind the curtain of the self they show others.

He then offered me this wisdom: ‘If you’re going to stay a Methodist, then you should tell your bishop you’ll serve wherever they send you so long as they’re willing to leave you there for at least seven years. It takes that long for people to reveal who they are behind their masks, warts and all.’

In other words, it takes time and patience to see notice grace at work in people’s lives.

But seen it I have and that, by a long shot and then some, is the best thing about ministry.

I could tell you about the woman whom I’ve known these past 7 1/2 years, who seems a completely different person these last few years than the  one I knew the previous years. To be honest, our relationship back then was often marked by mutual frustration. Today I think of her as something of a cross between a friend and a surrogate grandmother. What accounts for the change in her? She credits it with a spiritual discipline she started practicing a couple of years ago, intentionally praying the shema every day and daily committing herself to loving Christ and through him, others.

Grace has changed her.

Maybe that doesn’t strike you as a Road to Damascus type of story but it’s real and it’s just one example of many I could give.

I could tell you about the woman who, having been cared for tenderly by a black nurse, at the end of her life confessed and repented of her racism.

I could tell you about husbands and wives who, after much painful work, have forgiven one another of adultery, abuse, addiction. You name it.

I could tell you about prodigals who’ve come home, mothers and fathers who’ve worked at welcoming them and elder brothers who’ve looked themselves in the mirror to finally confront the nasty self-righteousness in them.

I could tell you about people who’ve come to faith by dirtying their hands serving the poor, and I can tell you about individuals who’ve given over hundreds of thousands of dollars for the poor because God Christ has been generous to them.

I could tell you about people who’ve lost a child.

And lost their faith.

And found it again.

Even then I’d only be scratching the surface of what I could tell you.

Not only was Dr Dykstra right. His point has turned out to be the best thing about being a pastor. If you give it time, you get to see.

I can’t prove God exists, and there are those dark days and dark moods when I wrestle with my doubts and fear I’ve given my life to a fool’s errand.

But what I can prove, what I can point to and say ‘See, there it is,’ what I know without ever a day of doubt, is that grace is real.

It happens.

 

 

 

Are Organic Foodies Jerks?

Jason Micheli —  December 12, 2012 — 1 Comment

organichFirst, I’ll fess up.

I like shopping at Whole Foods.

I don’t do it on a weekly basis nor do I do it out of any sense of crunchy altruism. They’ve simply got a better beverage (adult) selection and I love cooking seafood that was, like, alive in the sea at some point during the current Presidential administration.

But every time I’m at Whole Foods, I get the this feeling- the same feeling I get when I’m at a hard core outdoor store or a boutique coffee shop.

Namely, I feel others looking at me with equal parts pity and disgust, as though I didn’t belong there. Like I wasn’t one of them.

So maybe this study, suggesting organic foodies are looking down there noses at their less enlightened peers, is confirmation of the self-doubt that sweeps over me whenever I’m in the check out line at WF and the check out clerks raises a Bonfire of the Vanities eyebrow at my non-cagefree eggs.

According to the newsfeed:

A new study shows that organic foodies’ humane regard for the well-being of animals makes some people rather snobbish. The report, published last week in the Journal of Social Psychological & Personality Science, notes that exposure to organic foods can “harshen moral judgments.” Which, to us, sounds like a nice way of saying that organic-food seekers are arrogant. But that seems rather paradoxical: organic eaters are more likely to seek benevolence in their food, so why don’t they seek it in their relationships? Well, according to the study, they tend to congratulate themselves for their moral and environmental choices, affording them the tendency to look down on others who don’t share their desire for pesticide-free living.

Interestingly (and here comes my inner-Calvinist):

This but illustrates the Reformed assertion that any true, lasting and authentic exercise of compassion, be it personal or social- as in socially responsible buying habits, must come out of an experience of grace. 

That is, it’s only when you’ve confronted, in your deepest being, the truth that you’re more sinful than you ever admitted but also more loved than you ever imagined that you can be truly gracious to another.

Without that experience of grace, Calvin says, every compassionate deed will eventually be corrupted by our own self-love.

We will look down on others.

We will think ourselves superior.

Thus our perceived altruism is actually the outworking of pride.

So perhaps what organic foodies need is conversion. 

Maybe they need a shot grace to go with their shot wheatgrass.

Maybe they need to be able to say I once was a Safeway shopper but now am found, was blind but now I see.’ 

Sermon based on Nehemiah 8.13-17

*For those non-church members out there, ‘Dennis Perry’ is the Sr Pastor of Aldersgate. Senior = Old 

—————————————————————–

A few weeks ago Dennis threw a lot of numbers at you, data, from the recent Pew Trust Survey on Religion, the one that found that 20% of Americans now identify themselves as ‘unaffiliated’ with any religion.

But for me it’s a different Pew Trust Survey that’s gotten stuck in my craw: The Pew Trust Survey of Religious Knowledge. It’s from 2010 and contains 16 multiple choice questions.

You can still take the survey online. For the record, I got a perfect score.

Here’s what the survey found:

40% of Americans can correctly identify Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as books called Gospels. Not too bad, right?

Even better, 72% correctly answered that someone named Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea.

However, 55% of Americans- presumably not in Alabama- think the Golden Rule (Do unto others…) is one of the 10 Commandments.

But here’s the better-pay-attention-now number:

16%, only 16% of Americans know that Christians believe ‘salvation comes to us by faith alone’ not by anything we have to do or prove or be.

Just 16%

I scored higher than that in People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive Survey.

16%

More people follow Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Ashton Kutcher on Twitter than know the basic claim of the Gospel:

that a gracious God died in your place and the only way you participate in that salvation is through faith that changes you from the inside out.

16%

It’s a scary number.

And so this week I decided to test out how accurate that number really is; I decided to conduct my own little ‘experiment.’

Like previous ‘experiments,’ my wife call it a bad, jerky idea.

You might call it shamelessly trolling for sermon material.

I just like to call it ministry.

Friday afternoon I decided to take a guided tour of the National Cathedral, posing as one of the 84% who apparently don’t know our Story.

After paying my ‘suggested donation’ of $10, I walked into the sanctuary to the Docent’s desk where I waited for the next tour to begin.

Waiting with me was a slim couple in their 40‘s, speaking what sounded like Swedish to each other, along with 4 other couples, with sullen preteens in tow. They were all wearing sweatshirts and t-shirts and hats that said ‘DC’ or ‘FBI’ on them. So obviously they were from somewhere else.

A man in a crewcut and an Ohio State Buckeyes sweater looked at me and said: ‘My name’s Gary.’

Then he just stared at me, waiting for me to introduce myself.

So I said: ‘Dennis. My name’s Dennis Perry.’

‘You from around here?’ Gary asked.

‘No’ I said, ‘I’m from Harrisonburg, Va.’

At the top of the hour, the docent arrived and using her ‘inside voice’ gathered us together.  She had silver rimmed glasses and long, silver hair.

She was wearing a purple choir robe, for some reason, and a floppy satin hat she’d apparently stolen from Henry the 8th.

Maybe it was the silliness of her outfit or the stone confines of the church but it felt like we were all at Hogwarts and she was Professor Maganachacallit, showing us to our respective houses.

She began by telling us how much the largest stone weighed: 55 tons. She told us the original cost of all that brick and mortar: 65 million. She told us the number of stained glass windows: 231.

What she didn’t tell us, I noticed, was anything about why the church was there in the first place.

As the walking tour began so did my “experiment” in which I, Dennis Wayne Perry, pretended to be a complete ignoramus.

Fortunately, it’s a character I know well and can pull off convincingly.

For example, at the famous Space Window, the stained glass window containing a piece of lunar rock, I said loudly: ‘I didn’t know the moon landing was in the bible.’

Gary from Ohio squinted and said with authority: ‘I think it’s predicted in the bible, you know, like a prophecy.’

And when we were standing near a window showing Moses holding the 10 Commandments, I pointed at the window and said: ‘Wait, who’s that guy holding those tablet thingeys?

Sure enough the Pew Survey must be accurate because about 3/4 of our group all mumbled: ‘Moses.’

But Gary from Ohio whispered to me: ‘It’s Jesus. Gotta be Jesus.’

The tour continued and all along the way Dennis Perry, ignoramus extraordinaire, kept asking questions.

And while it’s true no one in the group necessarily thought that, say, Abraham’s sacrificial son was named Steve, as I speculated aloud, it’s also true no one in the group had enough confidence in their own answers to argue with me.

In the Bethlehem Chapel, I asked why Jesus is born in Bethlehem, to which the only response I got was from one of the sullen seventh graders: ‘Because otherwise we’d have to celebrate Hanukkah and Hannakah means less presents.’

Fair enough, I thought.

But standing in front of a gold crucifix, I pointed and asked innocently: ‘Who’s that?’

Several murmured ‘Jesus.’

But it wasn’t clear whether by ‘Jesus’ they were identifying the carpenter on the cross or the idiot named Dennis.

‘I don’t get it,’ I said, ‘why’s he on that cross?’

A middle-aged woman clicked a picture and said ‘He got crucified because he wanted us to love one another.’

‘That doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone kill someone for that?’ I said.

She just shrugged her shoulders and said ‘Dunno, that’s what I’d always heard.’

Gary from Ohio said: ‘He died so we can go to heaven, Dennis.’

‘Really? How’s that supposed to work?’ I asked.

And while the docent pointed upwards at the scaffolding and construction, Gary from Ohio blushed: ‘I’m not sure.’

After 50 years of God’s People suffering captivity in Babylon, Nehemiah returns to the Promised Land armed with a vision to rebuild the city walls which Babylon had laid to waste.

The work took several months.

But it wasn’t until the wall was complete that it sunk in:

God had delivered them from captivity.

Even though they hadn’t deserved it.

God had redeemed them.

And they’d taken him for granted.

That’s why, not long after the last bit of mortar is spread and the trowels are put away, the people- all the people- with no goading or prompting from Nehemiah or Ezra or any of the priests, the people flash mob Jerusalem.

They realized what they needed more than anything else- more even than the bricks and mortar they’d just finished- was God.

So the people gather at the Water Gate and the prophet Ezra reads the Word of God to them.

While listening at the Water Gate they hear Ezra read about a festival, a holy day, that God had commanded them to keep: Booths.

The Festival of Booths was meant to remind Israel of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and how God had provided for them every step of the way.

God commanded them to construct Booths once a year to remind them of the tents they lived in as they were making their journey from slavery to freedom.

The booths were meant to be a visible, tangible reminder of a salvation they did nothing to earn or deserve. That (the booth) was meant to function just like that (the cross).

Did you catch the end of our passage?

Nehemiah says Israel had not celebrated Booths since the days of Joshua.

In case you don’t know your bible, Joshua’s the one who picked up where Moses left off and led the people into the Promised Land.

Hundreds of years before Nehemiah.

This good news of salvation. Their core story of redemption.

They’d forgotten it. What’s more, they didn’t realize they’d forgotten it.

And you know what’s scary for us?

What’s scary for us is that that means, for generations, God’s People had said their prayers, and done their rituals, and built their sanctuaries, and they’d even worked against injustice and poverty.

For generations they’d done religion

Without celebrating their core story, their Gospel.

“Not since the days of Joshua” means that for a long time they’d just been going through the motions without having their hearts changed by this story of a gracious God who had saved them and asked only for faith in return.

This is from Jamie, a colleague, who’s recently returned from serving as a missionary:

“I always think it’s interesting when people pat us on the back for being missionaries to Latin America. Perhaps they think we were doing something difficult because they don’t know that in Latin America there’s a bleeding-Jesus-in-a-crown-of-thorns bumper sticker on every bus, taxi, and pizza delivery scooter. 

     You can easily engage nearly every person you cross paths with in a conversation about God or Jesus or Faith or whatever. It’s really not hard. 

     In Latin America, “Jesus” is generally a familiar and comfortable word – not an instant conversation killer.

     I’ve been back in the NorCal suburbs for a whole three months now, and all I can say is that ministry is way harder here than it ever was in Latin America. 

     Being an agent for Love and Grace in a place where people truly don’t recognize their own need is really tough. 

      I believe Jesus has competition in the American suburbs like no place else on Earth. Everyone here is surrounded by so much shiny new stuff, it’s hard to see the Light. 

     Here, depravity is hidden behind tall double doors, and the things that separate us from God often come gleaming, right out of the box. The contrast between Dark and Light has been cleverly obscured by the polish of materialism and vanity. 

     This place is overflowing with people who have full closets, full bank accounts, full bellies… and empty hearts. Here, poverty is internal, hunger is spiritual, and need feels non-existent. 

     But it’s there.

     Behind the facade of perfection in suburban America, past the fake boobs and fancy cars and fat paychecks, and at the bottom of aaalll thoooose wine glasses, there’s a need so desperate, a loneliness so great, and a brokenness so crushing that you can practically hear the collective cry for Redemption. 

     I’ve only just returned from Latin America, and now for the first time in my life, I feel like maybe I’m supposed to be a missionary…”

As our Cathedral tour ended, the docent encouraged us to sign the guest book. I couldn’t resist so I did.

Under ‘name,’ I signed Dennis W Perry.

Under ‘from,’ I put Harrisonburg, Va.

And under ‘comments,’ I wrote:

“You treat this place like a museum when you’re surrounded by a mission field”

The thing is- that’s a comment I could leave in any church in the country.

This week I sent you all a mass email, saying our theme this weekend would highlight our mission and service ministries.

And probably many of you came here this morning expecting me to tell you about what we’re doing in Guatemala and the difference we’re making in hundreds of lives there and how we can do more.

Or maybe you expected me to tell you about how our church serves the poor along Route One and how we can do more.

And we can

do more.

But if the term ‘mission field’ only refers to places like Guatemala or homeless shelters, we’re not really clear about what our mission is as Church.

The fact is- the poverty that can be fought with food drives is NOT the only poverty Jesus cares about.

As Mike Crane told me this week: “Aldersgate’s doing a great job serving the poor here and around the world but there are thousands who are spiritually poor, who don’t even realize what they’re lacking. And, just like the song says, Mike said, they’re not too far from here.

Some are as close as these pews. Some have been doing religion for years but haven’t yet let the Gospel into their hearts and let it change them from the inside out.

And that’s a kind of poverty.

These last few weeks we’ve been throwing a lot of numbers at you.

Data.

20%

16%

Here’s another number I want to grab you: 63%

That’s the percentage of people in a 10-mile radius of Fort Belvoir who currently are not a part of any church.

63%- I want that to change.

So listen up.

Here’s the God-Sized-Ante-Up-Let’s-Stop-Playing-Church-And-Find-Out-If-We-Really-Believe-in-the-Holy-Spirit-Vision:

Our bishop has asked us, as in, us, to consider planting a second congregation- a satellite congregation- in the Ft Belvoir region in the next 18 months.

Because every study shows- and the Book of Acts shows- the best way to make new Christians is to start new churches.

But I’m not talking about bricks and mortar; I’m talking about extending the ministry of this church, south.

I’m talking about people from here willing to imagine new ways to reach people there with the Gospel.

I’m not talking about starting yet another church for church people.

I’m talking about creating a worshipping community to reach the kinds of people who might need a different kind of church in order to meet Jesus.

Nehemiah says, when the people make booths and rediscover this God who saves us sinners, Nehemiah says they rejoice.

They’re changed.  That’s what we’re about. That’s what I want.

For you. For my kids.

For the 84% who don’t know the Story behind that (the cross).

And for the 63% not too far from here.

If we do this, if we discern that this is where God is calling us, then it can’t just be owned me or Dennis.

It’s going to take all of us.

And specifically, we’re going to need a team of 40-50 of you to commit yourselves to it.

The how/when/where/what/who questions are still down the road.

And you’ll be hearing more about.

But the first step?

The first step is probably for us to build ourselves some booths and rediscover the Gospel for ourselves.

Jesus in Cougar Town

Jason Micheli —  November 12, 2012 — Leave a comment
Does our affluence hide a deeper alienation? Underneath all our stuff  is there the same old sin? Is it hard for us to hear the message of grace in such a noisy culture?
The Very Worst Missionary has a post, reflecting on the degree of difficulty of sharing the Gospel in the US vs sharing it in the traditional mission field.
All I can say is that ministry is way harder here  in the suburbs than it ever was in Costa Rica. Being an agent for Love and Grace in a place where people truly don’t recognize their own need is really tough. Watching a married woman angle for an affair with a younger, hotter man while her daughter looks on is gut-wrenching. …And sorta hilarious…. But seriously? Gut-wrenching.
I believe Jesus has competition in the American suburbs like no place else on Earth. Everyone here is surrounded by so much shiny new stuff, it’s hard to see the Light. Here, depravity is hidden behind tall double doors, and the things that separate us from God often come gleaming, right out of the box. The contrast between Dark and Light has been cleverly obscured by the polish of materialism and vanity. 
Here, poverty is internal, hunger is spiritual, and need feels non-existent. But it’s there.
Behind the facade of perfection in Cougar Town, past the fake boobs and fancy cars and fat paychecks, and at the bottom of aaalll thoooose wine glasses, there’s a need so desperate, a loneliness so great, and a brokenness so crushing that you can practically hear the collective cry for Redemption. But the beautiful thing to be found in all of that mess is that there’s a Savior here, too, and He’s ready to fulfill his promises. 
Jesus is here, in Cougar Town. 
And for the first time in my life, I feel like maybe I’m supposed to be a missionary…
….    ….    ….
What is the Light competing with in your town?
Here’s the full post to read, it’s worth it.

According to the WSJ, researchers at Michigan State: perfectionism “appears to be greatly due to genetic risk factors as well as the unique experiences people have outside the home.”

 

So the reason I cannot- absolutely cannot, under no circumstances, no matter how long it takes me to rewrite everything- have any scratched out words or misspellings or edits-to-be on my sermon manuscripts, to do lists or planning calendars isn’t just by quirk of personality it’s because my mom is/was a perfectionist the nth degree. I’m hard-wired that way.

 

But perhaps I’m hard-wired that way not just by virtue of genetics. Or rather maybe my genetic code alone doesn’t get all the way to the bottom of the matter.

Perhaps I’m hard-wired by the Almighty to desire almighty-like things.

 

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, took many of his theological cues from Eastern Orthodox Christianity rather than Western (Catholic and Calvinist) models.  Whereas Western Christians, at times believing more in sin than grace, have traditionally taken a dim view of human nature and the goodness of which we’re capable, Eastern Christians have typically argued that ‘grace works.’ Namely, the operation of the Spirt upon us cleanses us of our sin nature and fashions us more and more into the image of God which God originally desired.

 

Wesley termed this process, which is really the work of the Christian life, ‘sanctification,’ our growing in holiness that has as its destination or outcome ‘perfection.’ The Orthodox call this ‘divinization.’ Methodists are people who believe that we’re not simply sinners and that’s how we stay. Methodists believe we can with God’s help become perfect in love as Jesus was perfect in love.

 

So then, maybe we’re hard-wired towards perfectionism because we’re made in the image of God who is perfect and the Spirit, by hook or by crook, is nudging us along towards that God who is perfect.

A sermon for All Saints based on Ezra 3

On Thursday afternoon this week, I found myself in what you might describe as a ‘sour mood.’ Or, as my wife likes to put it, I was ‘man-strating.’

First, early on Thursday I received an email from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named here in the congregation, my own personal Caiphus. For some reason, he felt the need to email me to dispute Dennis’ sermon from last Sunday.

You know, the sermon that was written by and preached by NOT ME. I mean if I’m going to start getting blamed for Dennis’ sermons too then he’s got to step up his game. Specifically, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named wanted to dismiss the Pew Trust statistics Dennis shared with you, about the percentage of people in their 40’s and 30’s and 20’s for whom church is not relevant to their lives at all.

His email was succinct: “I come to church every Sunday. If other people don’t that’s not my problem.”

That’s when I started manstrating.

Right after reading his email, I got in my car where I discovered that every single radio station was playing a campaign commercial, the kind explaining how this Tuesday is the most critical date in the history of human civilization and unless Barack Obama/Mitt Romney wins the earth will stop spinning, America will cease to exist, and the Death Star will reach full operational capacity.

Driving in my car, my mood worsened.

When I got home Thursday afternoon, my phone rang. And rang. And rang…don’t you love phone calls this time of year? Barack Obama’s campaign called me 3 times, asking for my vote and my money. Mitt Romney’s campaign called me 2 times, asking for my vote and my money. George Allen and Tim Kaine followed with robo-calls of their own, asking for my vote and my money.

So when my phone rang for the 8th time, I was full-on manstrating.

 

‘Is Jason Micheli there?’ the voice on the other end inquired.

 

‘No, he’s not here,’ I lied, ‘can I take a message?’

 

‘My name’s Matt. I’m calling from Princeton Seminary.’

 

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘this is Jason.’

 

‘But I thought you said…’

 

‘Never mind what I said. How can I help you?’

He then explained that he was a seminary student and that he was calling on behalf of the Bicentennial Campaign, soliciting gifts…and testimonials from alumni.

He tried to grease the sale by telling me all the new things going on at my alma mater, and then he asked if I would make a gift to the campaign.

I said sure. He said great. I said okay. He asked how much.  I told him.

And he said: ‘Times are tough, huh?’

That’s when my mood turned truly foul.

‘Look kid, maybe no one’s told you yet what you can expect to make as a pastor but I’m not Bill Gates. Besides, you should’ve called earlier. I’ve already given money to Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, George Allen, Tim Kaine, NPR and the Rebel Alliance.’

He sounded confused.

‘Well, um, would you like to share any thoughts about how your seminary education prepared you for ministry? We’d like to compile these and publish them in the alumni magazine.’

And instantly my mind went to that email from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, sitting in my inbox, still waiting for a reply.

And I knew this was one of those moments where a grown-up could choose to bite his tongue and not resort to petty sarcasm. But I’m not one of those grown-ups.

‘Sure, Matt, I’d love to share my thoughts. Here goes: Princeton Seminary prepared me exceedingly well…to maintain a church for church people.’

I could hear him typing my response.

‘In fact, Matt, why don’t you suggest to the trustees that they can slow down, delay the Bicentennial for several decades, because based on how Princeton taught me to do ministry it must still be 1950.’

‘That’s not the kind of feedback we were looking for’ Matt said.

‘Of course not, but its what you need to hear.

Princeton Seminary taught me to pray the kinds of prayers church people like, to preach the kinds of sermons church people like, to plan the kind worship services that church people like, to manage the kind of church that church people like.

 

But seminary didn’t teach me how to do any of those things in a way that makes church relevant and life-changing to an unchurched person.

 

And that’s the future, Matt. And the clock’s ticking. It’s ticking faster than any one in church wants to believe.’

 

Those Pew statistics Dennis shared with you last week- about how with each new generation the church plays an ever-shrinking role- those aren’t just numbers.

They’re people with names and stories. People God loves.

 

That’s why this week I sent our youth director, Teer Hardy, out into Alexandria and DC, to find some those people behind the numbers and hear their side of the story.

 

I wish I could show you the video he shot. If we were in the National Cathedral, I could show you the video. But since we’re in this sanctuary, you’re just going to have to listen. Here’s one of the responses (Cue Audio)

 

My name is ___________________. 

I’m 33. I’m married and have a 1 year old boy. I work full-time.  

As a 30-something, how relevant is the Church to you in your life? 

At this moment, not very much. I guess it’s been almost five years since I worshipped in a church, besides a few weddings. Some of my earliest memories are of going to church during Advent. 

I miss that element in my weekly life, of worshiping and belonging to a community. Part of me would like to have that resonance of faith in my daily life, but most churches don’t seem to have someone like me, someone my age, in mind. Your question could easily be turned around, couldn’t it? How relevant is someone like me to your church? 

When you hear the word ‘worship’ what comes to your mind? 

The word ‘worship’ doesn’t immediately lead me to think of institutional religious practices. 

To worship, to me, is to reframe my attention away from everything I typically pay attention to as a full-time working mother, and turn to God, experience awe, gratitude, connection to other humans. I could attend a formal church service and never experience any of those things, but I do experience them in other ways and places.  

What assumptions or habits do churches have that are an obstacle to someone your age? 

I think there is a risk of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction. I think churches sometimes try to pander and make themselves appear relevant to a young audience. People my age and younger are a lot savvier now. We’re marketed to all the time; we can tell the difference between a sales pitch and a genuine interest in us.

 

This is someone who grew up in church and is open to being a part of another one.

 

But did you hear what she said?

 

People like her won’t return to what they left if it’s the same exact thing they left before.

 

Now it’s easy to write people like her off. You can say ‘it’s not my problem.’

I could steer you towards plenty of people who would agree with you.

 

You know where they’re all at this morning? That’s right, in dying churches.

 

And Methodism’s got plenty of those. Churches who love their way of doing things more than they love their mission to reach new people.

 

Churches where perpetuating how they do things is their mission. Churches who feel no urgency until the day comes they can no longer pay the bills.

 

But, just in case there’s still some of you who want to dismiss the statistics and not be bothered about the strangers in the street who don’t think Jesus can change their lives, we solicited some other interviews too.

 

Cue Audio:

My name’s _____________________. I’m 24 and work full-time.

 

What about how churches do worship fails to resonate with you? 

 

I think everyone is at a different place in their lives and everyone has a different perspective. I know that my ideas and opinions about things have changed, and I would be amazed if they didn’t change again. Sometimes it feels like churches want new and younger people so long as we don’t come with our own opinions and needs. We’re expected to sign on to exactly how they like to do worship. In that sense, it’s not much different than children’s church when I was a kid.

 

It’s difficult for me to accept someone else’s preferences if I don’t get the feeling that they’re open to someone else’s way of doing things too. 

 

This other response come to me by way of Facebook:

 

My name’s ____________________. I’m a Graduate Student.

 

I think my faith is in a transitional phase. In college, I found Christian groups to be radical and extreme and it made me doubt the beliefs I had learned my whole life in church and youth group. It left me feeling that the Church just isn’t all that relevant to real life. 

 

Worship sometimes feels like a passive ritual to me. You show up, listen, then go home.  It doesn’t impact my day to day life. 

 

 

Those two people. Guess where they came from?

They grew up here at Aldersgate. They’re ours. Yours.

So, even if you think we don’t have a responsibility to reach as many new people as we can, at the very least you should agree that we have an obligation to people like these two.

After all, you’ve made promises to them.

Remember? When they were baptized- you promised to do whatever it takes to nurture their faith.

 

If we’re not willing to create the kind of church that will be relevant to them when they grow up, then, frankly, we should stop baptizing them when they’re babies.

 

If we’re not willing to adapt how we do church, we should stop baptizing children.

 

Because every time we baptize, we vow to do everything it takes to make them a saint.

 

Shirley Pitts can tell you- John Wesley understood this.

Remembering the saints is something we do. Once a year.

 

Producing saints, Sunday after Sunday, day in and day out- that’s our Christ-given great commission.

 

 

This is what you need to remember.

 

Dennis and I- one of our three goals for the coming 18 months is to raise the number of people in worship by 10%.

 

Round it up to 100 people if you want.

 

Before you nod your heads and say ‘that’s a great idea!’ remember the Ezra chapter 3 catch:

 

We can’t say we’re going to build a new temple and think we can do so by replicating how we’ve always done things before.

 

Because how we do things now will net us what we have.

Now.

 

We’re making worship our number one focus this year and our goal is 10% more people worshipping God with us.

 

To get to that goal, we’re going to have to be creative, take risks, value people over preferences, we’re going to have to examine all our assumptions, we’re going to have to get more basic/more essential, and change.

 

And if you think I’m talking about worship style or music style, you’re missing the point. For example:

 

Most of you would be very reluctant to invite an unchurched friend to worship with you. I understand that reluctance, but it’s got to change.

 

Many of you can’t talk about Jesus or use religious language in a normal conversation with your peers. I was like that; I understand that, and we’ve got to change that.

 

Many of our members are involved in all kinds of activities in the church without ever worshipping with us. I understand that’s an ingrained part of the church culture, but it’s a part of the culture that’s got to change.

 

Other than acolytes, we don’t have our children or youth involved in worship, serving communion, reading scripture, helping to plan, leading prayer or ushering. I understand that might sound chaotic. It’s still gotta change.

 

Many of you don’t know the names of the people you sit near in church every Sunday. I DON’T understand that and it’s definitely got to change.

 

Many of you think worship is something Dennis or I or Andreas or Jason or the band or the choir offer you, and you receive- rather than something we collectively offer our larger community on behalf of God.

 

And more than anything, that mindset has to change.

 

Look, I know change bothers people.

I’ve been at this long enough to have habits I’m afraid to change.

I understand.

 

But what I want to bother you more, what I wish I got emails complaining about, what I wish I got emails complaining about, is how our community is filled with lost coins, lost sheep, lost children and how we’re not laser-beam focused on getting them here so they can embrace a Father who’s waiting for them.

 

I want that to bother you because Jesus made it very clear: it bothers God.

 

I was still on the phone with Matt from Princeton when another call beeped in.

It was probably another campaign calling me for my vote and my money.

 

But at least it snapped me out of my rant and Matt said:

‘That’s a good point Mr Micheli, but transitioning a church into the future- don’t you think that’s your congregation’s responsibility too? Don’t you trust that God can equip your people with the necessary gifts?’

 

I told him he must get very good grades in seminary, and he chuckled gently.

 

And then the little jerk asked me for more money.

 

But he was right.

 

Building on our foundation for a new future is a gigantic, God-sized calling. And it belongs to all of us. Together.

 

Ezra says the leaders who build the new Temple after the exile are the grandkids of the ones who remember how things used to be.

 

Ezra says, at first, everyone thinks their idea to build a new Temple is a great idea.

But Ezra says some have a change of heart when they realize the new Temple won’t be the same as the old.

 

Some refuse to give their money to it, Ezra says.

 

Others opt out Ezra says.

 

But others, those who are old enough to remember what was 50 years ago, Ezra says they weep.

 

They weep, but they’re still there. They’re still there when the new Temple is dedicated.  They’re still committed. They’re still contributing. Because of what God did for them in the past, they’re still invested in the future of what God’s doing.

 

And sure when the new Temple is dedicated, Ezra says you can’t distinguish the sound of celebration from the sound of grief.

 

But that’s okay.

 

Because as messy as it is, that’s what it sounds like- celebration and grief, that’s what it sounds like- when God’s People take the next faithful step.

 

 

 

 

 

Fortune Cookie Faith

Jason Micheli —  October 29, 2012 — Leave a comment
Here’s a funny and thoughtful post from Jamie, the Very Worst Missionary, on how grace, as its lived in real life, can’t possibly fit onto little bits of paper- or for that matter Tweets or Blog posts.
———————————————————————————–
I bought chinese food for dinner at a grocery store deli the other night.
It was pretty bad. But you probably could have guessed that, y’know, since it was “Chinese” food made by a grocery store deli and not, saaaay, actual Chinese people. Nevertheless, we filled our bellies with soggy noodles, greasy rice, and a hearty serving of MSG – and when we were done we reached into the bottom of the plastic bag it came home in, past no less than 30 packets of soy sauce and a pile of crumpled napkins, to fish out our fortune cookies.
Man, we love fortune cookies! Actually, we just love the fortunes… the cookies are sort of meh. 
Anyway.
One by one, we cracked our cookies and slid out those little strips, filled with words of wisdom, to take turns reading our fortunes aloud. As it turns out, according to the cookies, one of my boys is “destined for greatness” while his younger brother will “fall on hard times”. Bummer for him, huh.
My oldest got some life advice about being a good friend, and then got his little gem…
And at first I thought, “That is too true, Fortune Cookie. Too true!”
But then I was like, “Wait a minute… What if I take up jogging and give up meth?!”
And then the wisdom of the fortune cookie broke down before my eyes. All those lucky numbers and pithy prophecies went right down the drain as I came up with one example after another of things in the “take up/give up” equation that could actually enrich my life:
What if I take up golf and give up doughnuts?
What if I take up knitting and give up abusing small animals?
What if I take up an instrument and give up poison blow darts?
What if I take up reading and give up Bejeweled Blitz… I’m kidding, of course. That would beridiculous.
But you see what I mean? The statement itself, while initially good, just doesn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny. Naturally, this isn’t a huge surprise because, really? It’s a fortune cookie. And fortune cookies probably shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
I’m telling you this because sometimes, (between posting love letters to food and pictures of my cat) I say dumb things on Twitter and Facebook; like little quips about faith and life and junk… And sometimes people want to turn those 140 characters into more than they were ever meant to be. Sometimes people want to get into theological debates over silly things that weren’t intended to do more than, maybe, stir a man’s soul a bit.
I’m pretty sure I’ve never read a life changing tweetNot one. And I’m certain I’ve never written one.
That’s because the fullness of the Gospel will never be captured in a single sentence. Or a paragraph. Or a clever blog post. Or even a tacky three page Bible tract.
Instead, it lays itself out over a lifetime; threading its way between morning and night, quietly abiding our self created chaos and gently bearing our indiscretions. It seeps into our bones over time. It nurtures us slowly, whispering light into our dark places and shoring up our weak spots.
Grace doesn’t fit in a fortune cookie.
And the whole grand scope of Redemption can’t really be conjured into a couple of words on the internet.
My life, your life… our real (everyday, sucky, messed up, occasionally super-rad, and awesome) lives are the true flag-bearers of our Faith. And that’s HUGE. Too huge, in fact, to pack inside familiar platitudes, snarky @replies, or delicate golden cookies.
I’m so cool with tweeting and blogging about Faith. I love it. I really do. But we should all be careful not make how we’re talking about it bigger and more important than how we’re living it. 

 

For our sermon series, this weekend I’ve been thinking about Justification by Faith Alone (vs Works). There’s no way to talk about Justification without talking about Martin Luther, the catalyst of the Reformation.

Luther carried this understanding of justification one step further.

Because the Gospel is God’s declaration to us and because this is a grace that is totally outside of us to which we can only respond with trust, there is no discernible interior change in us.

God looks on us with favor. God declares the Gospel to us: ‘For the sake of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.’ And the only response possible to such a promise is trust.

What Luther understands happens in justification then is that God chooses to see Jesus when he regards us. And God always does choose to see Jesus when he looks upon us. For Luther, even after we’ve responded in trust (even after we’ve had faith for a lifetime) we never cease essentially to be sinners. The new life faith makes possible always remains, in Luther’s view, nascent. Fundamentally, sin remains our determinative attribute even after justification.

This is Luther’s doctrine ‘Simul iustus et peccator.’ It translates to ‘at once justified and a sinner.’ Properly understood (and logically) Luther does not have a doctrine of sanctification, whereby God’s grace works within us to grow us in holiness. Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian in the Reformed tradition, emphasized this point by using the term ‘vocation’ rather than ‘sanctification.’ Christians have a calling in the world even though living out that calling does not effectively change or heal our sin nature.

Thomas Aquinas (and John Wesley after him) would argue this point. While admitting our sanctification can never be complete this side of heaven and so we retain a proclivity to sin, they would argue that once we respond to God in faith we truly do begin to heal. Wesley would even make the plain point that Jesus’ teachings seem superfluous if our nature never heals sufficiently that we can live out those teachings. Jesus’ teachings, for Wesley, were attainable expectations for Christians, but for Luther-convinced of our permanent sin nature- saw such an expectation as a depressing command (‘Law’ in Luther’s terminology as opposed to ‘Gospel’) we can never meet.

To be fair to Luther, his doctrine of ‘simul iustus et peccator’ wasn’t intended to recommend Christian passivity in the face of sin. We shouldn’t just resign ourselves to our sin nature; however, many of those who followed after Luther argued precisely this perspective.

 

By Grace Alone?

Jason Micheli —  September 29, 2012 — Leave a comment

For our sermon series on ‘The Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas’ we’re talking about Justification by Faith (vs. Works).

In Thomas Aquinas’ three-fold understanding of grace, grace begins with God. On that starting point there’s no difference between the Catholic perspective and what Luther fleshes out in his re-formation.

The second procession of grace, sanctifying grace, is grace that is in us. But how do you know if you have sanctifying grace? That question starts to get at Luther’s criticism.

The third procession of grace, according to Thomas, is our response of faith, hope and love that sanctifying grace makes possible. Again, if you don’t really have sanctifying grace- if perhaps you’ve deceived yourself and only thought you did- then necessarily you can’t possess genuine faith, hope and love.

Thomas’ formulation of grace, though it boasted a pedigree that went all the way back to the church fathers and though there appears to have been no other reformation era critics of it, in Luther’s mind placed for too much on us.

Whereas Thomas believed sanctifying grace is bestowed upon us in baptism and through the sacraments, Luther re-conceives grace’s movement.

Grace, first of all, names God’s favor, loving inclination, towards us. This is where Luther and Thomas agree. Second, grace is a Word addressed to me, a declaration. For Luther this declaration is the Gospel. Rather than a gift God implants within us, this Word God declares to us is the gift. Third, this word-gift is what enables me to respond in faith.

Part of the difficulty in the reformation debates is the confusion of terms. Thomas and Catholic theology in general use the term ‘justification’ to name the entire process of God’s favor towards us, God’s sanctifying grace and our response. Luther and the reformers after him instead use ‘justification’ to refer exclusively to God’s inclination and declaration to us. Our healing and response tend to get treated separately as ‘sanctification’ or ‘vocation’ or, in Wesley, ‘perfection.’ So, often, when Protestants accused of Catholics of ‘works righteousness’ it’s because Protestants thought Catholics were speaking of justification when, really, Catholics were talking about sanctification. And when Catholics thought Protestants were eliminating any role for works of faith and making faith totally passive it’s because Catholics thought Protestants were speaking of sanctification when, really, Protestants were speaking specifically about justification. That both sides tended to be led by stubborn, recalcitrant men didn’t ameliorate the confusion.

What’s essential in the divergence of views is how, for Luther, there’s nothing inside me that is different or changed. There’s nothing inside me that empowers me to respond to God with faith, hope and love. Luther did believe that eventually our trust in God would create a new life but that new life would never be the basis of our justification. It would never be why we’re pleasing to God.

Again, this gets back to Luther’s spiritual crisis. For Luther, what’s important is that we don’t look within ourselves to determine if we’re saved.

For Luther, looking within is the problem because, basically, inside we’re messed up. Within us, no matter how much we trust God, is a whole stew of conflicting motives. Obviously this is an incredibly autobiographical insight on Luther’s part. According to Luther if we want to know how we stand before God we look, not within, at the promise of God.

Justification, then, in this classical Protestant formulation is objective (in that it depends not on our apprehension of it) and it is passive (in that it God’s act outside of us).

 

We’re in the midst of a sermon series on ‘The Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas.’ This week we’re talking about Justification by Faith (vs Works) Alone.

The usual way Christians talk about being saved by faith owes to Martin Luther.

For much of his monastic career Martin Luther was plagued by the question ‘How can I get a gracious God?’

The question began to crystalize for Luther thanks to the help of a mentor, the abbott of his monastery.

The abbott, knowing Luther well, believed (correctly, I think) that Luther’s relentless introspection and agonizing over his contrition was, in a fundamental way, in conflict with the simple, gracious message of the Gospel.

Luther had an epiphany. He attributes it to close readings of Paul’s letter to the Romans. At some time, in confession, Luther heard the priest offer the words ‘Martin, your sins are forgiven’ and his experience was to stop focusing on the authenticity of his contrition and to listen to the priest’s words and to trust them.

And when he trusted that, Luther’s world changed and it had a ripple effect through his whole understanding of the Gospel.

For Luther, what became critical was that the priest said something. This is essential- for Luther now the Gospel is a word that gets said. The Gospel isn’t dormant in the pages of scripture. The Gospel is a promise that is proclaimed.

Fundamentally, what Luther came to understand is that the Gospel is a statement. It’s a spoken word that takes the form of a declaration: ‘Martin, for the sake of Jesus Christ, your are forgiven.’

The Gospel is a declarative statement. It’s not a command (‘Go and do…’). It’s not horatory (‘Let us…’). It’s not an imperative (‘We should…’).

It’s critical to see this because it leads Luther to ask: how can you respond to a promise? You can’t obey a promise. All you can do is trust it or not trust it.

What Luther realizes in the confessional is that God doesn’t ask anything of us. God makes a declaration to us.

This is what Luther meant by ‘justification by faith alone’ which gets clarified later as ‘justification by grace through faith alone.’ It’s not the case, as is often misunderstood, that our faith justifies us. Luther instead means that God has declared us forgiven, we’re justified. (Indeed John Calvin and Karl Barth will say this declaration happened on the cross and is perfect, meaning it applies to you whether you want it to or not.)

‘By faith alone’ means that the only possible response to God’s declaration is faith, which Luther understands as trust.

Once Luther comes to this understanding of justification the entire foundation of the medieval church becomes useless to him, making a collision with Rome inevitable.

 

Alan Jacobs has a book entitled:  A Theology of Reading.In it he makes an incredibly simple point that far surpasses the act of reading. His point, drenched in the Gospel, can and should be applied to everything from marriage to church meetings to politics. 

Here it is: genuine interpretation of another’s writing is an act of love or it is an act of abuse. Either we treat the author as a person who has given voice to his or her inner heart and that we can trust, listen to, and respond to. Or, we treat that person as a duplicitous voice that we can’t trust and that we can strip in order to use for our own power.

To love a person is to listen to them, and to let their voice speak. To listen to a person is to let that person’s world enter into our world. When the latter happens we choose either to enhance our own life with the other person or, as Cain did to Abel, we destroy that other person to make them what we want ourselves. To treat them with love and trust is to let them be the Eikons God made them to be; to refuse to trust them and love them is to make them a golden calf which we can hammer down into our own image.

We have no other real options. Genuine interpretation begins with loving the other.

What does scripture say about homosexuality?

Does scripture condemn loving, monogamous gay relationships? Does it? Are you sure?

The NY Times ran a story on Sunday about Matthew Vines a young gay Christian whose lifelong church, and many lifelong friends, couldn’t abide his sexuality nor his insistence that he was still in the parameters of scripture.

I’ve written here before that Christians of good will can and do disagree over this issue, but here’s what I have no patience for: Christians- on either side- who make their arguments and pronouncements pro or con but have no actual knowledge of what scripture says. I hear a lot of ‘the bible teaches…’ by people who don’t seem to really know what in fact the bible teaches.

And that’s what I admire about Matthew Vines’ story. Rejected by his church and many friends, he’s responded A) not in anger or despair and B) not by giving up on the faith. Instead he’s taken on a teaching mission to unpack just what scripture says on these thorny issues. Disagree with him if you like; however, his drive and zeal to be counted among God’s People is to be admired.

Here’s the story. And just below is Matthew’s presentation on You Tube. It’s worth a full watch.

Some Wise Pastoral Counsel

Jason Micheli —  September 12, 2012 — 1 Comment

This comes from a good friend of many years. He recently received some sound advice from a friend, advice I think that’s on target for just about all of us. Disregard my friend’s cheap shot about my cynicism.

 

Hey Jason–I know you don’t check your fb emails all that regularly, but I wanted to share something very interesting…that if you can put your cold-hearted cyncism to the side–you might appreciate. smile I have been on this spiritual journey as of late…having children and being married has caused me to really reflect even more so that I normally do. I even went to a fellow minister to get some guidance and counsel because not having a dad, especially not a Christian father, and even though I counsel families–I’m not very good at taking my own advice. I write all of that to say that in meeting with my friend–he pointed out that I am approval/performance driven (ouch) I can be critical and non-accepting of people because I am critical and non-accepting of me. So…your blogs have really hit a nerve because, though doctrine is important, I am learning to love–to rest in Him.

Sounds easy, but difficult to understand that I am ok with me…that love and grace can be uncondtional from God and I, in turn, can share that same unconditional love and grace with others. That when I see my sin…it isn’t for me to be condemned, but to draw me to the holy, merciful, loving, gracious God… to cry out to God and thank Him, praise Him, adore Him, worship Him. To submit to His grace is counterintuitve to me…but I think a lot of Christians struggle with this.

Now, I know some of you prefer your Christian movies to be the overt type- the bathrobes and beards type of movies, usually starring Chuck Heston or Anthony Quinn, or some of you like the recent spate of faith friendly movies that all seem to be about firemen.

Not me.

A film need not be made by Mel Gibson or star Kirk Cameron (really, Kirk Cameron?) to convey something of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit is not the sole possession of the Church (or TBN); therefore, the profane can contain the sacred within it, as much if not more than the self-described religious fare. This has always been the case. Christians just seem to have forgotten it of late.

I qualify these as ‘Christian’ because none of them are explicitly religious nor, as far as I know, made by practicing Christians. This doesn’t prevent them, however, from resonating in powerful ways with aspects of our Christian confession.

Pan’s Labyrinth and Inglorious Bastards

As Walter Brueggemann argues, one of scripture’s chief attributes is how it puts forth a ‘sub-version’ to the dominant story of reality. Against the reality of empires and evil, scripture continually professes that what appears to be going on isn’t what’s really going on. By asserting this story, people of God laugh at evil and its power. This is what the prophets do. This is what Revelation is largely about.

I can think of no better film versions of this than Pan’s Labyrinth and Inglorious Bastards. One is a beautiful tale of a ‘sub-version’ of the Spanish Civil War. Another a profane, violent comedy about WWII in which Hitler is killed- what better way to spit in the eye of sin than to imagine a different fate for Hitler? 

Unforgiven

It’s almost an old movie now, but in it Clint Eastwood offers the best, most concise summary of original sin and justification. The young, aspiring assassin asks Eastwood’s gunslinger, after having killed several bad guys: ‘They had it coming to them, didn’t they?’ And Eastwood replies: ‘We’ve all got it coming to us, kid.’

 

A History of Violence

Most violent movies either glorify violence or trivialize it. This is the only movie I have ever seen that uses traditional action movie violence to articulate its maker’s non-violent message. Its violence is visceral, almost like ballet. You’re left realizing the cost, physical and emotional to all concerned, of what we do to each other. It’s also got a great ambiguous ending- does Vigo’s family forgive him? Or are they too numbed and accommodated to our culture of violence?

Children of Men

A science fiction dystopia that got lost in the euphoria over one of the hundred Harry Potter movies. Mystery writer PD James wrote the (inferior) novel. It tells of a near future in which women are no longer able to become pregnant. The last generation of youth born to women are violent nihilists and every one else vaguely goes about living out humanity’s last days. Then, an every man, played by Clive Owen, becomes the steward of the last woman on earth to become pregnant. Earth’s last hope rests on one woman’s baby. Sound like an advent movie? It is. If you want a sense of the longing, fear and anticipation of Jesus’ birth then don’t watch the Nativity. Watch this.

You Can Count on Me

It’s on Netflix so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t watch this. A single mother and her son’s life is interrupted by the arrival of her long estranged brother. It’s a warm, realistic movie. The scene where she fesses up to her (episcopal?) priest about her affair is not only the best example of pastoral care I’ve ever seen; it’s also spot-on what Christians mean by the word ‘grace.’

Days of Heaven

Even Richard Gere can make a good movis…of course this movie predates me. It’s a Terrance Mallick film that retells/reworks the story of Abraham and Sarah’s sojourn in Egypt in the 19th century American prairie. It’s the MOST BEAUTIFUL, and I mean visually, film I have ever seen. You’re left feeling that all the earth is charged with grace. Which, of course, it is.

Crimes and Misdemeanors 

I know what a lot of you think about Woody Allen. Whatever, he’s a genius. Picasso was a freak too, no one quibbles about his art. Crimes and Misdemeanors is a Job-like meditation on whether God sees what we do in this life. The question is asked by Martin Landau, who’s done a few things that make him hope the answer is no. He asks the question to his eye doctor, a faithful practicing Jew. What’s the answer? Well, let’s just say the eye doctor (spoiler) is losing his eye sight.

Tree of Life

This movie took a lot of s$%^ last year when it came out. It’s by Terrance Malick too. Dinosaurs. Meditations on Nature vs Grace. Sean Penn and Brad Pitt. CGI Creation Story. Stunning Photography and Legit Philosophy. What’s not to like?

If the movie suffers or is imperfect it is so because of its ginormous ambition. When comparing it to, say, Superbad, just consider the degree of difficulty.