Archives For Grace

995687_4988940372277_749089862_nThis past weekend a former youth in my congregation who since has become a friend became a colleague. I had the privilege to stand on stage with Taylor Mertins and lay hands on him as the bishop commissioned him as a provisional minister.

The event put me in a recollecting mood as this month I’ve spent a dozen years as a pastor in 3 different congregations, 2 here in Virginia and 1 in New Jersey. I’ve changed in many ways during those years and my theology has changed too. The answers I gave back when I was first examined for ordination aren’t necessarily the same answers I would give today.

Taylor’s commissioning has prompted me to think through some of the ways my thinking has changed since I went through that same ritual.

First up, is my thinking around infant baptism, the 3rd rail of the United Methodist ordination process.

When I was working my way through the United Methodist ordination process, any suggestion that infant baptism was not the biblical norm as verboten as uttering Lord Voldemort’s name. The United Methodist powers-that-be needed to insure I could articulate a traditional theological explication of infant baptism; in truth, they needed to protect the Church from infiltration by too many crypto-baptists.

Now that I’m duly ordained, however, I can say what I couldn’t say during my provisional period: the New Testament and early Church literature offers us no definitive evidence that infant baptism was or wasn’t practiced by the first generations of Christians.

To this point, you could counter by citing what are known as the ‘oikos’ passages in the New Testament.

Oikos, in the Greek, means ‘household.’ In the book of Acts, especially, when the Spirit and ministry of the Church lead to another’s conversion, that individual’s conversion frequently occasioned the conversion and baptism of their entire household.

Obviously this presumes the initial convert was typically a head of household.

It also presumes those included under the rubric ‘household’ were very often servants and slaves who were baptized against their will- hardly an ideal ministry model for us today.

Here’s a quick rundown of the oikos passages in the New Testament:

The household of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48; 11:13-18)

The household of Lydia (Acts 16:13-15)

The household of the Philippian jailor (Acts 16:30-34)

The household of Crispus (Acts 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:14)

The household of Stephanus (1 Cor. 1:16)

The household of Gaius (1 Cor. 1:14)

While it’s entirely possibly ‘household’ in these passages included infants and children, none of the available texts makes that explicit. It’s also true none of the texts eliminate that possibility.

What I dared not say when I was in the midst of the ordination process is that, fact is, for the first centuries of the Church the record is ambiguous.

     Any Church striving to be faithful to the first Church must necessarily struggle with the fact that adult baptism was the norm for the early Church.

While I was jumping through the commissioning and ordination hoops, I articulated the textbook- and expected- Wesleyan response on baptism.

Baptism, like the Eucharist, is, as Wesley described it, an ‘ordinary channel’ by which God gets to us. Baptism reminds us that salvation comes by God’s gracious initiative. Baptism is a means of what John Wesley called prevenient grace, God’s claim of us before we ever even desire God.

     Before someone outs me as a heretic to the bishop, it’s important that I’m clear:

     I don’t disagree with the traditional Wesleyan theology of infant baptism.

1001446_4988885010893_488859186_nRather after 12 years of congregational ministry in a culture that is rapidly becoming post-Christian, I’m increasingly aware that the Wesleyan emphasis on baptism as a means of prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace is a second order mode of reflection on the sacrament- a mode of reflection that was inherited from the Medieval Scholastics and was suitable to Wesley’s own day when the average citizen knew the particulars of the Christian story by virtue of being a participant in the wider culture.

     But 21st century America is not Wesley’s Enlightenment-era England and hasn’t been for longer than we’ve wanted to admit.

     Instead, after 12 years of serving in a local congregation, I’m increasingly aware that our culture is quickly resembling the context of the first century culture in which the faith began: a culture where Jesus-followers were a witnessing minority in the midst of rival religions and ideologies.

And after these dozen years as a minister, I wonder if it would be more helpful to recover an emphasis on baptism more nearly patterned after the early Church’s primary  baptismal message:

Christians are made not born.

To become a Christian you need to be initiated.

No one is born a Christian. Perhaps the starkest contrast between the Church and the Synagogue, save Jesus Christ himself, is the fact that the Church isn’t a community that grows biologically.

The Church only grows by witness and conversion. Presently, the mainline Protestants traditions in the West are all experiencing trying decline in numbers and vitality. In the United Methodist Church today, most congregations do not make a single new disciple in a year and are ‘dying’ churches by most objective metrics.

I can’t help but wonder if such decline is exacerbated by a singular emphasis on infant baptism that has left the Church no longer adept at what was once its primary mission: converting people into a new way of life of which baptism is the visible sign.

We can quibble about baptismal theology but it’s very clear that as the United Methodist Church leans into the future it’s going to have to relearn how to convert adults to the way of following Jesus Christ.

Typically in the ancient Church it took several years for a prospective Christian to be admitted into the Body. During those preparatory years, a period known as the catechumenate, the inquiring student participated only partially in the life of the community.

For example, it was commonplace for catechumens to be dismissed from worship (not unlike our children’s sermons) after the word was read and proclaimed and before the Eucharist was celebrated.

Catechumens would spend these liminal years receiving doctrinal instruction and ethical guidance, submitting to moral scrutiny, disciplining their will, amending past sins, changing their vocation if their work was contrary to the Kingdom and gradually growing accustomed to living the Christian life.

Baptism nearly always came on Easter Eve but not before spending the prior forty days of Lent learning the story of redemption: how once we were all prisoners and slaves in the household of Death, atrophying in ignorance of our true home; and how Christ had come to set the prisoners free, to rescue us from bondage, to make himself our Passover from Death to Life, to unwind the story of Sin and be the Second Adam to a New Creation.

This is the story rehearsed and ingrained in the weeks leading up to baptism because it was into this story that the initiate’s own life was merged when they at last sank down into the life-ending, life-giving waters of baptism.

Precisely because it was a submersion into the death of Jesus, baptism came on Easter Eve, during the midnight vigil, when the Church believes, having rescued souls from Hell, Jesus passes from Death to Life.

At a fixed point in the long, intricate worship service, after the arc of the scripture story had been proclaimed, the catechumens would depart the sanctuary for the baptistery, which usually housed a flowing stream. There, at the bishop’s direction, the initiate would face West, the direction of nightfall and so the direction of spiritual darkness. Facing West, the candidate would submit to an exorcism followed by a forceful renunciation of Sin and Evil; in fact, the initiate, in their renouncing, was instructed literally to ‘spit at’ the devil and the devil’s servants:

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

I renounce them.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? 

I renounce them.

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? 

I renounce them.

     Having renounced the ways of the world, the candidate would turn East, the direction of the rising sun, and would confess faith in and allegiance to Christ.

     Given the early Church’s minority, persecuted status in the empire this act of renunciation and allegiance was hardly a sentimental or purely spiritual experience.

It was a very real transferral of obedience from one master to another and very real consequences were expected to result from it.

In darkness then and to a cacophony of prayers, chants and blessings, the candidate would descend into the water as naked as the day they were born. The bishop would then immerse the initiate three times, in the name of the Trinity.

Rising from the water, the new Christian would be anointed with the oil of chrismation, the seal of the Spirit, robed like a bride in a new garment of white and led back to the sanctuary where, for the first time, they could see the Eucharist celebrated and share in it.

Considering the dangers and risks involved in becoming a Christian in the early generations; considering the relationships that were likely severed; considering the obligations and sacrifices ahead; considering the strangers to whom one now belonged and the strange way of life to which allegiance had been pledged; nothing less than primal, base language would do to describe the initiating ritual: Death, Birth, Marriage.

After a dozen years pastoring in what is, with each new passing day, a new cultural situation, I wonder if it would be wise to recover the ancient Church’s primal, base, alternative-Kingdom language to speak about baptism.

I wonder if it would behoove us to recover their emphasis on baptism as transferral of citizenship and loyalty. I wonder if it would help us in pursuing our mission to reclaim their understanding that infant baptism is an acceptable subset of which adult baptism is the scriptural norm.

 

 

mainDick Cheney could’ve spared himself a lot of historical ignominy had he opted to force prisoners to read Mark Driscoll’s ebook Pastor Dad: Biblical Insights into Fatherhood rather than submit them to water-boarding.

The cumulative effect of Driscoll’s self-congratulatory screed has been to remind me of Robert DeNiro’s stepfather character in This Boy’s Life, the memoir/film by Tobias Wolf.

DeNiro’s abusive yet pathetically silly character, like Driscoll himself, haunted the Pacific Northwest.

MV5BMTgyODM0NTIzOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTQ1MjMyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR1,0,214,317_

Chapter 6 of Driscoll’s ebook, ‘Instruction Followed by Correction,’ pretty much follows this theo-literary formula:

‘A wise and godly father SHOULD______________’ 

‘A wise and godly father MUST________________ ‘

Insert tenuous citation from the Old Testament Book of Proverbs. 

I began reading this book to anticipate Father’s Day but Driscoll is such a boorish nag the book is better suited to Mother’s-in-Law Day.

The model of ‘biblical’ parenting prescribed by Driscoll presents a telling contrast to that other sacred text opening in theaters tomorrow, Man of Steel.

People who know me or read me will not be surprised that in the comic pantheon I prefer Batman, well tied with Hell Boy actually. Batman is dark and damaged. Cynicism leads him to vigilantism. The costume reveals his true self rather than masks it.

2840438-bg

Superman, on the other hand, has always been a bit too bright, too optimistic and Americana kitsch for me.

Except, I guess I should qualify that by saying I never really cared for Superman until I had kids.

Until I adopted kids, I should add.

My oldest boy, I should specify.

Most reflections (of a theological bent) on Superman focus on how Kal-El is a graphic, American Dream projection of our need to have a Christ-like Savior figure, one whose character is as pure as his powers are mighty. And sure, you can interpret Superman that way. I mean it’s not exactly subtle; Kal- El is a loose play on the Hebrew for ‘voice of God.’

But to read it only that way is, I think, to miss something else entirely.

Superman’s goodness, his kindness and gentleness, his (often unfounded) insistence on believing in the good inside people- all those attributes that led me to dismiss Superman when I was  a boy are exactly those things that give me hope now that I have boys.

Because those attributes of Clark Kent I found so bland and corny as a kid are attributes Clark acquired from Ma and Pa Kent.

His adoptive parents. article-kent-2

This is clear to anyone who’s read the Superman comics- and it’s what makes Superman Red Son, in which Clark’s spaceship crashes not in the Midwest but in the Soviet Union, so interesting.

Clark is the way he is, unfailingly kind (even to the point of naivete), gentle and good, not because he went to K-5 at the Fortress of Solitude Academy.

No, he is the way he is because that’s the example Ma and Pa Kent gave him as his parents.

Superman’s goodness is their goodness.

While Batman shows the life-long impact of tragedy striking a boy in one’s formative years, Superman, more so than any other comic superhero, demonstrates the power- the possibility- of nurture being just as formative in a child’s life as nature.

In the Church, we call that grace. It’s the good news behind Clark’s goodness. And it’s been the good news in our own family.

We adopted our oldest boy when he was a few days shy of his 5th birthday. His preceding years had given us every reason to expect that the proceeding years would be far from easy. Or happy.

The adoption world uses terms like ‘at risk’ and ‘special needs’ to name the possibility that whatever’s happened before this child crashed into your life likely cannot be undone by whatever love you nurture in him.

And often, sadly, that IS how the story turns out.

But I can give you at least two stories, one drawn in reds and blues and the other being told in flesh and blood, that turn out differently.

 

70X7This past weekend as part of our Lenten Sermon Series on Idolatry, Counterfeit Gods, I taught from Matthew 18. That’s the chapter where you’ll find Jesus’ double-dog dare command that we should forgive not once, not twice, not even seven times but just shy of 500 times.

Which is Jesus’ Jewish way of saying: Forgive all the time. 

And, because he’s the Christ of the perpetual offense, Jesus follows up that turd of a teaching with this parable, in which a servant- who’s obviously meant to be our doppleganger- receives grace and forgiveness from the King (ie, God, in case you’re terrible at reading stories).

Because the forgiven servant can’t extend forgiveness to to others, he’s thrown in Hell to be tortured for a debt whose math works out to about 64 million days.

Nice.

Of course, we did kill Jesus for telling stories like this.

Unexpectedly, the sermon’s subject elicited several dozen questions from folks who heard it or who’ve since read it online.

Questions about forgiveness.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. We all live life, to some degree or another, with other people. Bumping into people. Rubbing and getting rubbed the wrong way. Like milk and bread in a snow storm, conflict and forgiveness are just staples of weathering life with other people.

I’ll try to answer some of the questions in posts this week.

Here’s one question I got:

‘Does forgiveness mean that we have to stay friends with people or is it enough to let go of our anger/resentment and decide to no longer keep a score/ledger of their transgression?

Short answer: no. 

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to remain friends, and forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to restore a broken relationship.

I think we can all probably name people and situations where to do so would be naive, at best, and dangerous, at worst. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to stay married to someone who repeatedly breaks their vows. Forgiveness doesn’t mean someone should continue to suffer at the hands of an abuser. And forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re obligated to play the fool to a friend who’s shown they’re not actually a friend.

So if the answer’s no, then exactly what are Christians talking about when we talk about forgiveness?

I hate it when people pedantically cite Webster’s dictionary definitions but that’s exactly what I’m going to do. The clarity is helpful in this case:

Forgiveness = the action or process of remitting a debt

While I think some people overemphasize debt language as it pertains to the cross, the imagery can be helpful in thinking about our own relationships.

Forgiveness is forgoing what another person owes you. It’s declaring a pardon. It’s eating the cost of what was done to you rather than making the other person pay. Forgiveness is sacrificing what you deserve for the sake of the other. Forgiveness is you no longer needing what the other person has coming to them to come to them. It’s letting go of the (righteous) anger, and putting down the score card.

Forgiveness can be a form of suffering. It usually is, but it’s the only way to stop the cycle of retribution.  

Now, all that is different than:

Reconciliation = the action of process of restoring a broken relationship

Though we often merge them together so they become incoherent, forgiveness and reconciliation are two related, but distinct, terms. Forgiveness and reconciliation name two different poles in the process of healing. Reconciliation is the fruit of which forgiveness is a necessary first seed.

You can’t have a reconciled relationship without forgiveness. 

But, in a fallen world, you can have forgiveness- and sometimes you must- without reconciliation. 

Think of the servant in Jesus’ parable.

He’s been forgiven. His debt to the King was canceled. But the rest of the story shows that he was not in a reconciled relationship with the King because his heart remain unchanged.

Think of us.

Jesus declares us pardoned from the cross. We’re forgiven. The debt, for all time, has been paid. But that does not mean every person- or even every Christian- enjoys a reconciled relationship with God.

To answer the question behind the question:

The hard, scary work of humility, I think, comes in discerning whether you refuse to seek reconciliation with your former friend/spouse/whatever because to do so would be unwise (ie, they’ve hurt you too many times) or if instead you refuse the possibility of reconciliation because you haven’t truly let go of the debt.

You’ve forgiven them in name only. 

Which means you haven’t really forgiven at all. 

And that, Jesus says, has scary stakes. 

 

 

 

 

By the Book

Jason Micheli —  March 11, 2013 — 8 Comments

Here’s my sermon on ‘Forgiveness’ for our Lenten Series on Idolatry, Counterfeit Gods. You can listen to the sermon in the ‘Listen’ widget on this page or download for free in the iTunes Library, under Tamed Cynic.

70X7

This isn’t the sermon I thought I was going to preach when my week began.

I started out on Monday writing a sermon about the prophet Elisha and a leper named Namaan, but then, because of a decision I made weeks ago, I had an encounter this week that provoked a much different sermon.

If you read my blog, then you know that a few weeks ago I made a Lenten commitment that once or twice a week I would strap a clergy collar around my neck, which I usually only wear to weddings and graveside burials.

I made a commitment that I’d strap a collar on and go to some public space, like a coffee shop or pub or cafe, and just see what conversations came my way by exposing my faith and vocation in plain sight.

 

Since then I’ve worn it to Starbucks a couple of times.

Last week, I went to Barnes and Noble.

This past week I went to Whole Foods to eat lunch in the cafe and sketch what I had planned on being a very different sermon.

I sat down in a booth with my food and a few books about the prophet Elisha. And aside from the check-out guy asking me who I was going to vote for- for Pope- it was an uneventful day.

And I was about to call it a day, when a woman pushing a grocery cart crept up to my booth and said:

‘Um, excuse me Father….could I?’ 

 

     She gestured to the empty seat across from me.

 

‘Well, I’m not exactly a Fa______’ I started to say but she just looked confused.

 

‘Never mind’ I said. ‘Sit down.’ 

 

She looked to be somewhere in her 40’s. She had long, dark hair and hip, horn-rimmed glasses and pale skin that had started to blush red.

 

No sooner had she sat down than she started having second thoughts.

 

‘Maybe this is a mistake. I feel ridiculous and I just interrupted you. I just saw you over here and I haven’t been to church in years…’ 

 

She fussed with the zipper on her coat while she rambled, embarrassed.

 

     ‘It’s just….I’ve been carrying this around for years and I can’t put it down.’ 

 

‘Put what down?’ I asked.

 

‘Where do I start? You don’t even know me, which is probably why I’m sitting here in the first place.’ She laughed and wiped the corner of her eye.

 

‘Beginning at the beginning usually works’ I said.

 

‘Yeah,’ she said absent-minded, she was already rehearsing her story in her head.

 

And then she told it to me. She confessed.

 

About her husband and their marriage.

About his drinking, the years of it.

About his lies, the years of it.

About her making every effort to help him, to stick by him, to do whatever it

took to keep their marriage together.

She told me about how he’s sober now.

And then she told me about how now the addiction in their family is her anger and resentment over how she’ll never get back what she gave out, how she’ll never receive what she spent.

 

Then she bit her lip and paused- like she was mentally censoring a part of it.

 

And so I asked her: ‘Are you asking me if you’re supposed to forgive him?’ 

 

‘No, I know I’m supposed to forgive him’ she said. ‘My priest told me that years ago- that’s when I stopped going to church. I know I’m supposed to forgive.’ 

 

‘What’s your question then?’ I asked.

 

‘I’ve sacrificed enough. He’s the one who owes me. Why does forgiving him just make me feel like a victim all over again?’

 

     ‘Why can’t I just wipe this from my ledger….and move on?’ 

 

And when she said that, I knew I had to write a different sermon.

When Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness, when Peter asks Jesus if forgiving someone 7 times is sufficient, Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer. Peter’s a brown-noser, a butt-kisser. Peter wouldn’t have raised his hand and volunteered if he thought it was the wrong answer.

After all Moses had said an eye for an eye, do in turn what was done to you but no more. So 7 times must have struck Peter as a generous, Jesusy amount of forgiveness.

I mean, think about that. Imagine someone sins against you. Say, a church member gossips about you behind your back. I’m not suggesting anyone in this church would do that, just take it as an illustration.

Imagine someone gossips about you. And you confront them about it. 

     1. And they say: ‘I’m sorry.’ So you say to them: ‘I forgive you.’ 

     2. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     3. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     4. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     5. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     6. And then they do it again for sixth time. And you forgive them. 

 

     I mean…fool me once shame on you. Fool 2,3,4,5,6 times…how many times does it take until its shame on me?

 

     It’s got to stop somewhere, right? 

 

And Peter suggests drawing the line at 7 times.

7 is a good, biblical number and, whether we’re talking about gossip or anger or adultery, 7 is a whole lot of forgiveness.

So Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer; Peter must’ve expected a pat on the back, gold star from Jesus. But he doesn’t get one.

 

     Instead Jesus says: ‘You’re off by about 483.’ Not 7 times but 70 times 7. 

 

     490 times. And- it’s even worse than it sounds.

     490 was a Jewish way of expressing perfection. Infinity.

 

So Jesus is saying there is no limit to forgiveness, that forgiving someone is something we never get done with. It’s something that goes on forever.

That forgiveness is not a favor we offer 490 times but when we finally get to 491 we can stop.

     No, Jesus is saying that forgiveness is a way of life that never ends.

 

And as he likes to do, Jesus goes straight from answer to illustration and tells a story that starts with grace and ends with hell.

 

‘And oh, by the way,’ Jesus tacks on, ‘that’s exactly what God will do with you unless you forgive in your heart.’ 

 

On the surface that’s a really crappy story. 

     You must forgive or else. You must forgive or else your heavenly father will lock you in hell and throw away the key? You must forgive…out of fear? 

     That doesn’t sound like Jesus- at all. 

     So, there’s got to be more going on in this story than you can hear the first time through. 

     In fact, what we need is a couple more takes to notice what’s going on in Jesus’ parable. 

So what I need is a few volunteers…

The story revolves around 3 main characters: a King, a servant and a fellow servant.

     Take One: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35

    So in the beginning, the king opens his ledger to settle accounts, and he finds a servant who owes him 10,000 talents.

The amount of the debt is key to the whole logic of Jesus’ story. In case you’re rusty on your biblical exchange rates:

1 Denarius = 1 Day’s Wages

6,000 Denarii = 1 Talent 

     This servant owes the king 10,000 talents. When you do the math and carry the one- that comes out to roughly 60 million days’ wages or 164 years and 3 months of labor. 

So when Jesus tells the story, Peter and the other disciples would’ve known instantly that this man owes a debt he could never possibly repay. It’s not just a large debt; its an un-repayable debt.

But no sooner is the man forgiven his debt and set free than he encounters a fellow servant who owes him, about 3 months wages. No small amount but small potatoes compared to the debt he owed the king.

So even though he’s been forgiven and set free he grabs the man, chokes him, demands what’s owed him and sends the man to prison, ignoring the very same plea he’d pled: ‘be patient with me…’

And when the king finds out he has failed to extend the same mercy he had received,  the King has him thrown in jail to be tortured until all his debt is repaid, to be tortured.

To be tortured for 10,000 talents worth of time. 60 million days.

     Take Two: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35

     Here’s a question:

Why does the king cancel the debt?

Because of the servant’s plea? Because he promises to pay back everything he owes? 60 million days worth of wages?

He can’t ever pay that back.

So if the king forgives the servant because the servant promises to make it up to him, then the king is stupid.

The king just forgives him. Gratuitously. The king offers him grace.

And how does the servant respond?

Immediately he leaves the king and then turns to a fellow servant and demands from his peer what he has coming to him.

Somehow this servant has managed to receive the king’s forgiveness yet he’s remained completely unchanged by it. 

     He’s been forgiven something he could never repay. 

     He’s been spared a punishment that should have been his. 

    He’s been offered grace and somehow its not converted his heart or his character. 

     He’s still the same person he was before. 

     The king’s grace has not made him a person of grace. 

     Take Three: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35

     Here’s another question: what happens to the debt? In the story?

The king examines his ledger and sees what’s owed him. But when he forgives the servant, what happens to the debt?

Where does that debt go? What’s the king do with his ledger?

Because the debt doesn’t just disappear. Someone has to pay the debt- that’s the way the world works, that’s the way accounting works.

And this servant can never pay what is owed. So who eats the debt?

The king.

     The king pays the debt.

     The king will have to suffer the cost of this un-payable debt because forgiveness always costs someone something.

But notice, it’s not just that the king pays the debt.

Because the king can’t forgive the servant without in some way tossing the ledger book aside once and for all.

Because there’s nothing this servant can ever do to bring his relationship with the king back in the black.

So when the king forgives the servant, the king also sacrifices the ledger.

Keeping tally of what’s been earned and what’s still owed goes by the wayside for good.

The whole system of settling accounts, of keeping score, of positive and negative, of + and -, of red and black, of credits and debits, of giving and receiving exactly what is owed- the king DIES to that way of life.

He gets rid of the ledger, so that a servant can have new life.

But notice.

After the king gets rid of his ledger, who’s still got one? 

     Who’s still keeping score? Who’s still keeping track of what people owe him? Who’s still recording what he’s earned? Who’s still tallying what he deserves from others but still hasn’t gotten?

     You see, the king throws his ledger away. Gone for good.

     But the servant clings to his ledger. 

     And he takes his ledger with him, willingly, all the way to hell. 

     In other words, Jesus says, if you insist on treating other people by the book then God will give you exactly what you want. And treat you by the book. 

‘Why can’t I just wipe the ledger clean and move on? Why does forgiving him make me feel like a victim all over again?’ the woman at WF asked me.

I sipped the last of my coffee.

And I said: ‘That’s kinda the way it’s supposed to feel.’ 

I could tell from her face she didn’t follow.

So I tried to explain:

‘The way we forgive is just a small-scale version of how God forgives. There’s no way to reconciliation that doesn’t first go through pain and suffering. Jesus is the pattern. Forgiveness means you bear the cost instead of making the other person pay what they owe you.’

‘That’s a sucky answer’ she said.

‘Sure it sucks’ I said. ‘It sucked for Jesus too, remember.’ 

‘Do you talk like this in church?’ she asked. ‘No, never.’ 

‘Look, the debt your husband owes you is real, but forgiveness means you absorb that debt. And, yes, it’s painful and, sure, it’s hard, but that’s the only way to resurrection.’ 

‘Like I said,’ she said, ‘it’d be a lot better if I could just wipe the ledger clean and move on.’ 

     ‘Yeah, but if you wipe that part of it clean it won’t be long before some other part of it shows red. It’s not about wiping the ledger clean. It’s about getting rid of the ledger altogether.’ 

 

Pay Attention:

No more pretending. That woman at Whole Foods, and that servant in the story, they’re not the only ones clinging to their ledger.

Let’s not kid ourselves.

Some of you carry around a ledger filled with lists of names:

Names of people who’ve hurt you.

Names of people who’ve taken something from you.

Names of people who’ve wronged you.

People who’ve cheated you or cheated on you.

Who’ve lied to you or who’ve lied about you.

People who refuse to listen to you, or to understand you, or to accept you.

People who’ve betrayed you, who’ve rubbed you the wrong the way, or who’ve just let you down one too many times.

And in many of your ledgers, you have a whole other list of names, people that no matter what they do, there’s nothing they can do to change their name from the red to the black in your book.

Some of you cling to ledgers filled with balance sheets, keeping score of exactly how much you’ve done for the people in your life compared to how little they’ve done for you.

Some of you cling to marriage ledgers, tallying the precise daily cash flow of what each person brings to the marriage, which person is costing the marriage more and which person is sacrificing more, working more, contributing more. To the marriage.

And some of you cling to ledgers that look more like a list of accomplishments:

How much you’ve done for others.

How much you’ve given to your church.

How much you attend worship.

All the reasons why you think, assume, God should love you.

While others of you can’t let of go.

Can’t let go of ledgers that list all the sinful things you’ve ever done. All the things you’re ashamed of. All the things you wish you could change about yourself. All the things you wish you could take back.

Ledgers filled with all the reasons why you’re secretly convinced God can never love you.

This sanctuary should not be a place where we lie: there are as many ledgers in this room as there are people.

And, hell, I have my own.

But Jesus wants us to know that we’ve got to put them down. 

     To get rid of them. Toss them aside. Die to that whole way of living. 

     Because clinging to this (the ledger) makes an idol out of that (the cross). Because if you’re still holding on to this, that’s just a symbol from a story that happened once upon a time to someone else. 

I mean, let’s be honest. Some of you have gone to church your whole lives and you’re no different than you were before. The grace of the King has not made you a grace-filled person.

And it’s because you’re still holding on to this.

     When it comes to you, you want the King to throw the book away. But when it comes to everyone else in your life, you insist on going by the book.

But clinging to this, going through your life going by the book, needing to keep score, needing to tally and balance the accounts, it makes that (the cross) an idol. 

      It makes it nothing more than an object– because you’re worshipping the object and not its meaning and power. 

Because the good news of the cross is that you’re more sinful than you’ll ever admit but you’re more loved than you could ever imagine.

The good news of the cross is that there is nothing, nothing, nothing, you can do to earn God’s love.

And there’s nothing you can do to lose it.

God doesn’t keep score. God doesn’t go by the book.

Because the King has tossed his ledger in the trash.

And despite the cost, he’s paid every debt. Every debt. And that includes, by the way, the debts that everyone in your life owe to you.

     So put the ledger down. Put it down. Get rid of it. Die to it.

And instead tit-for-tat, instead of quid pro quo, instead 1 for 1, you do this and I’ll do that, eye for an eye, try 70 x 7.

Show mercy.

Every time.

Just as the King has shown mercy to you.

 

Myth_of_You_Complete_Me

Last week, I transferred my blog WP.com to a self-hosted site. The process has had a few glitches. Today a bunch of old posts got resent to different subscribers. Sorry for that…problem solved. And now with no further ado. 

 

I’ve been married nearly a dozen years. I’ve performed I don’t know how many weddings, presided over even more pre-marital counseling sessions and refereed an equal amount of relationships as they were coming to an end. So I’m not Dr Phil but I’ve learned a thing or two. Or ten.

#9: No One Marries Their Soul Mate

In fact, you never even marry the right person.

When teaching about Heaven, I frequently stress the point that ‘soul’ is a concept foreign to scripture. As far as Judaism and Christianity are concerned, you don’t have something called a ‘soul.’

It therefore follows that you don’t have someone called a ‘soulmate’ out there either.

I know we all like to go weak-kneed thinking (a la Jerry McGuire) that there’s a specific, special person out there meant just for us who will ‘complete us’ and that, if we only find them-and they us, we will have married our perfect match.

Happily ever after.

Like two puzzle pieces being fit together.

But here’s the problem:

Puzzle pieces don’t change. Everything else about puzzle pieces, save that missing space, remains the same.

People, especially married people, do change.

If you had asked me twelve years ago if Ali was my soul mate, if she was the perfect person for me, I would have told you without pause: ‘Damn straight.’

But here’s what I’ve learned from my own marriage and from watching others’ marriages. Here’s the point and beauty of marriage: marriage is a means of grace; like the eucharist, it’s one of the means by which we grow and become more perfect creatures.

We don’t pick our perfect match because we ourselves are not perfect the day when we say ‘I do.’

Such perfection is only possible through a life lived with our spouse.

We never marry the right or perfect person, we never start out with our ‘soulmate’ because marriage doesn’t allow us to stay the same person we were when we started out. Sometimes for good and sometimes for ill, a life lived and shared together makes us different people.

Marriage isn’t two puzzle pieces coming together.

It’s more like two rough diamonds being polished and perfected over a lifetime.

You don’t marry the perfect person for you.

Your marriage creates the perfect person for you.

You don’t begin your marriage with your soul mate.

God willing, you end up with someone who is your soul mate.

If you had asked me twelve years ago if Ali was perfect for me, I would’ve said yes.

But I was wrong.

I was wrong because back then I couldn’t have anticipated how my life with Ali was going to transform me in unexpected ways. She’s made me a better person. Thus, she’s more perfect for me now than she ever could have been then.

Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian whose own memoir testifies to both the redemption and the pain marriage can bring, puts these same thoughts this way:

We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person. just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge is…learning to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.

 

counterfeit-gods-timothy-kellerWe’re beginning our Lenten sermon series this weekend on Counterfeit Gods. It’s a series on idolatry and, by extension, justification. Two topics that have me thinking about this article I read about Peter Rose getting erased Marty McFly-like from Topps Baseball Cards.

There are some things people will never agree on: Stones vs Beatles, Cool Bed Pillow vs Warm Bed Pillow and whether spending a month with Jar-Jar Binks would be worse than a month suffering with the Clap.

Add to this list of imponderables the question of whether or not Pete Rose (and I suppose all the rest from the Steroid Era) should be in the Hall of Fame. Being from Ohio originally, I know full well this question has its impassioned advocates on both sides. The arguments, both pro and con, however almost always revolve exclusively around baseball. The integrity of the game. In the case of steroids, there’s the point about the ‘purity’ (a revealing word) of a sport to which statistics are everything. And then there’s the very real concern that the cheaters’ records minimized the accomplishments that were won the hard way- as far as we know.

I don’t really care one way or the other about Pete Rose et al.

What interests me is how differently the Hall of Fame treats former players

when compared to how the Church treats its saints.

St Augustine was wantonly promiscuous and all but abandoned his loved ones- save his mommy- when he converted to Christianity and became a priest.

John Wesley was a terrible husband.

Jean Calvin had a man burnt at the stake.

Paul stood by and watched a man get stoned. And said nothing.

Mother Theresa had long periods of doubt and despair in her lifetime. Pope Benedict was a Hitler Youth.

And, of course, let’s not forget the 12 Disciples, one of whom betrayed Jesus for money and 11 of whom betrayed him just to save their own skin.

What’s remarkable when compared alongside the Hall of Fame is how the Church has never shied away from the sullied, silly or shadow sides of its saints.

Even the most honored saints are still sinners, and they can be because it’s not their saintliness that justifies their inclusion in God’s Church. It’s God. Only an institution that participates in the Gospel story and thus knows our justification comes not from our own accomplishments but from Christ’s gracious love can openly acknowledge both the warts and the wisdom of its people.

The Hall of Fame, on the other hand, participates in a much different story. The American story. Whereas the Church doesn’t need to blush that Peter denied Christ or that Augustine couldn’t keep it in his cloak, baseball (and America) often feel the need to pretend our heroes are without flaw. Because, after all, in America one’s accomplishments really are what we think justifies us.

Back to Pete Rose, Barry Bonds and the rest. I get the baseball arguments for their exclusion. But on Gospel grounds, I say let them in, rap sheet and all. Celebrate the positive. Don’t hide from the dark side of their stories.

A Hall of Fame that pretends the greatest hitter of all time (Pete Rose) and the greatest player of all time (Barry Bonds) never existed is a little like a Church that pretends Peter and Judas and Augustine (and, let’s be honest, you and me) never existed.

counterfeit-gods-timothy-kellerThis weekend we begin our Lenten sermon series, Counterfeit Gods. We’ll be talking all through Lent about the idols in our lives. No, idols aren’t inanimate totems (aka: Golden Calfs) that we stupidly think are divinities. Idolatry is as real (maybe more?) as it was in the ancient world.

An idol is anything in our life to which we place ultimate value, anything in life from which we derive our chief happiness and meaning, anything in life on which we depend for our life’s meaning and purpose.

Based on that definition alone, you can see that, chances are, you’re not off the hook.

What’s more, idolatry is hardly something other, unbelieving people do. Christians are just as guilty as anyone else of turning their money, family, children, love, spouse, career, or political party into an ultimate value, giving it the place that should be reserved for God alone- a mistake which frequently ends up corroding our money, family, children, love, spouse, career or politics.

Another thing should be on the list of idols for Christians: religion. 

Too often Christians (me: guilty) worship their religious categories instead of God.

Too often Christians derive their sense of worth and identity not from God but from our moral purity.

But, as Sarah Bessey points out in the post I discovered below, if nothing can separate us from God because of Jesus Christ then it’s also true that nothing can justify us before God but Jesus Christ.

Here’s her thoughts.

I was nineteen years old and crazy in love with Jesus when that preacher told an auditorium I was “damaged goods” because of my sexual past. He was making every effort to encourage this crowd of young adults to “stay pure for marriage.” He was passionate, yes, well-intentioned, and he was a good speaker, very convincing indeed.

And he stood up there and shamed me, over and over and over again.

Oh, he didn’t call me up to the front and name me. But he stood up there and talked about me with such disgust, like I couldn’t be in that real-life crowd of young people worshipping in that church. I felt spotlighted and singled out amongst the holy, surely my red face announced my guilt to every one.

He passed around a cup of water and asked us all to spit into it. Some boys horked and honked their worst into that cup while everyone laughed. Then he held up that cup of cloudy saliva from the crowd and asked, “Who wants to drink this?!”

And every one in the crowd made barfing noises, no way, gross!

“This is what you are like if you have sex before marriage,” he said seriously, “you are asking your future husband or wife to drink this cup.”

Over the years the messages melded together into the common refrain: “Sarah, your virginity was a gift and you gave it away. You threw away your virtue for a moment of pleasure. You have twisted God’s ideal of sex and love and marriage. You will never be free of your former partners, the boys of your past will haunt your marriage like soul-ties. Your virginity belonged to your future husband. You stole from him. If – if! – you ever get married, you’ll have tremendous baggage to overcome in your marriage, you’ve ruined everything. No one honourable or godly wants to marry you. You are damaged goods, Sarah.”

If true love waits, I heard, then I have been disqualified from true love.

In the face of our sexually-dysfunctional culture, the Church longs to stand as an outpost of God’s ways of love and marriage, purity and wholeness.

And yet we twist that until we treat someone like me – and, according to this research, 80% of you are like me –  as if our value and worth was tied up in our virginity.

We, the majority non-virgins in the myopic purity conversations,  feel like the dirty little secret, the not-as-goods, the easily judged example.  In this clouded swirl of shame, our sexual choices are the barometer of our righteousness and worth. We can’t let any one know, so we keep it quiet, lest any one discover we were not virgins on some mythic wedding night. We don’t want to be the object of disgust or pity or gossip or judgement. And in the silence, our shame – and the lies of the enemy – grow.

 

And so here, now, I’ll stand up and say it, the way I wish someone had said it to me fifteen years ago when I was sitting in that packed auditorium with my heart racing, wrists aching, eyes stinging, drowning and silenced by the imposition of shame masquerading as ashes of repentance:

“So, you had sex before you were married.

It’s okay.

Really. It’s okay.

There is no shame in Christ’s love. Let him without sin cast the first stone. You are more than your virginity – or lack thereof – and more than your sexual past.

Your marriage is not doomed because you said yes to the boys you loved as a young woman. Your husband won’t hold it against you, he’s not that weak and ego-driven, choose a man marked by grace.

It’s likely you would make different choices, if you knew then what you know now, but, darling, don’t make it more than it is, and don’t make it less than it is. Let it be true, and don’t let anyone silence you or the redeeming work of Christ in your life out of shame.

Now, in Christ, you’re clear, like Canadian mountain water, rushing and alive, quenching and bracing, in your wholeness.

Virginity isn’t a guarantee of healthy sexuality or marriage. You don’t have to consign your sexuality to the box marked “Wrong.” Your very normal and healthy desires aren’t a switch to be flipped. Morality tales and false identities aren’t the stuff of a real marriage. Purity isn’t judged by outward appearances and technicalities. The sheep and the goats are not divided on the basis of their virginity. (Besides, this focus is weird and over-realized, it’s the flip side of the culture’s coin which values women only for their sexuality. It’s also damaging, not only for you, but for the virgins in the room, too. Really, there’s a lot of baggage from this whole purity movement heading out into the world.)

For I am convinced, right along with the Apostle Paul, that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any other power, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.* Not even “neither virginity nor promiscuity” and all points between can separate you from this love. You are loved – without condition – beyond your wildest dreams already.

I would say: Sarah, your worth isn’t determined by your virginity. What a lie.

No matter what that preacher said that day, no matter how many purity balls are thrown with sparkling upper-middle-class extravagance, no matter the purity rings and the purity pledges, no matter the judgemental Gospel-negating rhetoric used with the best of intentions, no matter the “how close is too close?” serious conversations of boundary-marking young Christians, no matter the circumstances of your story, you are not disqualified from life or from joy or from marriage or from your calling or from a healthy and wonderful lifetime of sex because you had – and, heaven forbid, enjoyed – sex before you were married.

Darling, young one burning with shame and hiding in the silence, listen now: Don’t believe that lie. You never were, you never will be, damaged goods.”

 

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.