Archives For Tim Keller

St Thomas AquinasTim Keller and DA Carson, leaders of the Gospel Coalition, recently and unceremoniously booted a fellow member, the high-profile grandson of Billy Graham, Tullian Tchividjian.

The offense?

Heresy.

As a United Methodist, I’m at least encouraged to see church leaders getting hot and bothered over something other than sexuality.

Tchividjian had apparently strayed in his understanding of grace, specifically the doctrine of sanctification.

The notion of one Calvinist telling another Calvinist they’ve got their theology of grace all wrong surely has the ancient Church Fathers, notably St Thomas Aquinas, laughing in their graves.

After all, that Neo-Calvinists today are getting tripped up over issues of grace is not surprising since their namesake, Jean Calvin, screwed the pooch on the doctrine ago.

In Calvin’s severe theology, God’s work of grace and our human freedom are posed as mutually exclusive poles.

And, as anyone who knows their church history knows, Calvin argued that the work of grace is solely the work of only one of those two poles.

The work of justification and sanctification is the gratuitous action of God to which human freedom contributes nothing and plays no part.

Not only is God’s grace infallible- it gets what God wants- it is, ironically enough, coercive. It involves our will not at all; otherwise, Calvin believed it would be disqualified as a work of grace.

In other words, Calvin and much of the Protestantism that followed cast God’s work and human freedom as an either/or binary wherein the presence of one necessitates the exclusion of the other.

The gracious action of God requires the absence of human work while human freedom becomes, by definition, the absence of any action of God.

Thus, the familiar question: ‘Are we saved by God’s grace or by our works?’

For Calvin and many Protestants, it’s an either/or vexation.

It’s odd that it should so, however, since the Christian tradition prior to Calvin saw it not as an either/or but as a both/and.

According to Thomas Aquinas, God’s grace is both infallible and non-coercive. God will eventually get what God wants (friends that we call saints), but God does not do so against our will, without our participation.

God’s work of grace, Aquinas says, requires human consent, for consent is what’s required in any friendship.

But- and this where the either/or goes wrong- that human consent is itself the gracious work of God.

The gracious of God’s salvation requires human willing which is itself the creation of God’s gracious work.

Thus, to the familiar question: ‘Are we saved by God’s grace or by our works?’

Aquinas (and Augustine before him) answer ‘Yes.’ Both/And.

The work of grace is 100% the work of God, but paradoxically the work of grace is 100% human freedom because that freedom is what God’s gracious action creates.

To Aquinas, the either/or dichotomy of what became Calvinism produces a mistaken- even idolatrous- picture of God. It’s why Aquinas begins his Summa so ploddingly, unpacking exactly what God is and what is not God. The god of the mutually exclusive, either/or, God’s Action vs Human Action binary is not God. Is not the God Who Is. To suppose, as most modern Christians do, that what makes my actions free is that I’m the only agent responsible for them is to misunderstand the God who holds all things in being at all times.

After all, if I decided to pick up my dog and throw her out the window, you might say that I’ve done so of my own free will, that God had nothing do with it. Except in every moment of that decision and action God was actively holding me in existence (and my dog) and, apart from us, God was actively holding in existence the laws of gravity that would guarantee my dog met an unpleasant end.

God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

For our every action, both God and we are the causes of them (which means evil is not a dilemma that can be explained away by citing ‘human freedom’).

The idolatrous problem with the either/or binary of Calvinism can be seen in the two options which it produced in the modern world:

1.) A loathsome god who, as Thomist Denys Turner puts it, is “a hands-on, interfering busybody’ acting apart from the actions of his creatures. This is the magic-genie god of Joel Osteen et al, but it’s also the angry, wrathful god who sends natural disasters to punish for political positions.

 

2.) The hands-off Deist god whose relationship to the world is evacuated of any presence and power exactly in those places our lives have their most meaning and value. This is the god of nearly everyone else.

In both instances, the either/or binary reduces God to the level of another creature within the universe, and in both human freedom is exclusive of God’s acting.

When God’s not acting, offering lucky parking spaces or sending down torment, God’s not acting.

But for Thomas the Church Fathers before him, it’s never either/or. It’s is always both/and because God is the God who just IS. Existence itself. God is nearer to me than I am to myself. There is nothing in the universe and no action of ours that is not free and uncoerced, yet simultaneously- and perhaps paradoxically- there is nothing in the universe and no action of ours of which God is not the cause.

 

 

imagesIs it because we have no TULIP of our own?

I wonder after reading this article in the NY Times about the Neo-Calvinist revival. I have my hunches. You?

Here’s the article:

For those who are sad that the year-end news quizzes are past, here’s one to start 2014: If you have joined a church that preaches a Tulip theology, does that mean a) the pastor bakes flowers into the communion wafers, b) the pastor believes that flowers that rise again every spring symbolize the resurrection, or c) the pastor is a Calvinist?

As an increasing number of Christians know, the answer is “c.” The acronym summarizes John Calvin’s so-called doctrines of grace, with their emphasis on sinfulness and predestination. The T is for man’s Total Depravity. The U is for Unconditional Election, which means that God has already decided who will be saved, without regard to any condition in them, or anything they can do to earn their salvation.

The acronym gets no cheerier from there.

Evangelicalism is in the midst of a Calvinist revival. Increasing numbers of preachers and professors teach the views of the 16th-century French reformer. Mark Driscoll, John Piper and Tim Keller — megachurch preachers and important evangelical authors — are all Calvinist. Attendance at Calvin-influenced worship conferences and churches is up, particularly among worshipers in their 20s and 30s.

In the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, the rise of Calvinism has provoked discord. In a 2012 poll of 1,066 Southern Baptist pastors conducted by LifeWay Research, a nonprofit group associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, 30 percent considered their churches Calvinist — while twice as many were concerned “about the impact of Calvinism.”

Calvinism is a theological orientation, not a denomination or organization. The Puritans were Calvinist. Presbyterians descend from Scottish Calvinists. Many early Baptists were Calvinist. But in the 19th century, Protestantism moved toward the non-Calvinist belief that humans must consent to their own salvation — an optimistic, quintessentially American belief. In the United States today, one large denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, is unapologetically Calvinist.

But in the last 30 years or so, Calvinists have gained prominence in other branches of Protestantism, and at churches that used to worry little about theology. In 1994, when Mark Dever interviewed at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist church in Washington, the hiring committee didn’t even ask him about his theology.

“So I said, ‘Let me think about what you wouldn’t like about me, if you knew,’ ” Mr. Dever recalled. And he told them that he was a Calvinist. “And I had to explain to them what that meant. I didn’t want to move my wife and children here and lose the job.”

Mr. Dever, 53, said that when he took over in 1994, about 130 members attended on Sundays, and their average age was 70. Today, the church gets about 1,000 worshipers, with an average age of 30. And while Mr. Dever tends not to mention Calvin in his sermons, his educated audience, many of whom work in politics, knows, and likes, what it is hearing.

“I think it is apparent in his teaching,” said Sarah Rotman, 34, who works for the World Bank. “The real focus on Scripture, and that all the answers we seek in this life can be found in the word of God. In a lot of his preaching, he does really talk about our sinfulness and our need of the Savior.”

That focus on sinfulness differs from a lot of popular evangelicalism in recent years. It runs contrary to the “prosperity gospel” preachers, who imply that faith can make one rich. It sounds nothing like the feel-good affirmations of preachers and authors like Joel Osteen, who treat the Bible like a self-help book, or a guide to better business.

“What you’d be hearing in some megachurches is, ‘God wants you to be a good parent, and here are seven ways God can help you to be a good parent,’ ” said Collin Hansen, the author of “Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey With the New Calvinists.” “Or, ‘God wants you to have a good marriage, so here are three ways to do that.’ ” By contrast, Mr. Hansen said, those who attend Calvinist churches want the preacher to “tell them about Jesus.”

Some non-Calvinists say that the rise of Calvinism has been accomplished in part through sneaky methods. Roger E. Olson, a Baylor University professor and the author of “Against Calvinism,” is the Calvinists’ most outspoken critic.

“One of the concerns is that new graduates from certain Baptist seminaries have been infiltrating churches that are not Calvinist, and not telling the churches or search committees who are not Calvinist,” Professor Olson said. According to what he has heard, young preachers “wait several months and then begin to stock the church library with books” by Calvinists like John Piper and Mark Driscoll. They hold special classes on Calvinist topics, he said, and they staff the church with fellow Calvinists.

“Often the church ends up splitting, with the non-Calvinists starting their own church,” Professor Olson said.

At its annual meeting in June, the Southern Baptist Convention received a report from its special Calvinism Advisory Committee, which addressed charges both of anti-Calvinist prejudice within the denomination and of unfair dealing by Calvinists.

“We should expect all candidates for ministry positions in the local church to be fully candid and forthcoming about all matters of faith and doctrine,” the report read.

While many neo-Calvinists shy away from politics, they generally take conservative positions on Scripture and on social issues. Many don’t believe that women should be ministers or elders. But Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary, said that Calvin’s influence was not limited to conservatives.

Liberal Christians, including some Congregationalists and liberal Presbyterians, may just take up other aspects of Calvin’s teachings, Dr. Jones said. She mentioned Calvin’s belief that “civic engagement is the main form of obedience to God.” She added that, unlike many of today’s conservatives, “Calvin did not read Scripture literally.” Often Calvin “is misquoting it, and he makes up Scripture passages that don’t exist.”

Brad Vermurlen, a Notre Dame graduate student writing a dissertation on the new Calvinists, said that the rise of Calvinism was real, but that the hoopla might level off.

“Ten years ago, everyone was talking about the ‘emergent church,’ ” Mr. Vermurlen said. “And five years ago, people were talking about the ‘missional church.’ And now ‘new Calvinism.’ I don’t want to say the new Calvinism is a fad, but I’m wondering if this is one of those things American evangelicals want to talk about for five years, and then they’ll go on living their lives and planting their churches. Or is this something we’ll see 10 or 20 years from now?”

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zA friend new to ministry recently asked my advice on preaching…

Here are 3 quick pieces of advice:

Write 250 Words a Day 

Some invaluable advice I received in a creative writing class in college was that I should adopt the habit of writing at least 250 words a day. Really, it’s only two paragraphs. They need not be brilliant examples of writing. It doesn’t need to be the great American novel, a dissertation or moving sermon. It can be about anything under the sun.

The sheer habit of writing, however, will prime your creative pump (hence this blog) and make the writing of the sermon at week’s end much easier.

Be Creative 

The first caution about being creative is the caution above about your listeners’ BS radar. Being childish and trite is not the same thing as being creative.

The second caution about being creative is that technology is now omnipresent in our culture. Using PowerPoint and YouTube are not creative in their own right and they’re certainly no longer counter the status quo. This just makes the bar for creativity higher.

Use your imagination.

Variety

Tim Keller is a far more accomplished pastor and preacher than me so who am I to judge, but it amazes me that nearly every sermon he preaches- no matter the form of the text- has the same 3 Point Rational Exposition Form.

Scripture is replete with manifold forms of communication. Logical exposition is a surprisingly a small portion of the scriptural witness. So why is that variety not evidenced in our preaching?

If our sermon forms were any indication, someone new to the bible might suspect our scripture resembled something more like the Quran, filled with rational rules and precepts.

To preach biblically is to let the bible’s moods and methods lead us.

Preach narratively.

Preach poetically.

Preach parabolically.

Lament.

Unsettle.

Praise for Praise’s sake.

Challenge.

Draw a vision of God’s future.

 

Shudder – to tremble with a sudden convulsive movement, as from horror, fear, or cold. 

That moment when you want to find the nearest cave and just stay there awhile – or maybe longer….

counterfeit-gods-timothy-keller1Do you ever have those moments when realizations hit you like a brick and send a chill through your body?

Not a good kind of chill – a shudder.

That horror.  That fear.

That recognition that leaves you cold.

That moment when it feels like nothing will ever be ok again.

Oprah helped bring the watered down version into our vocabulary – the AHA moment.  But I’m talking about the shudder moment.

Isaiah talks about it:

 “The arrogance of man will be brought low and the pride of man humbled; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day, and the idols will totally disappear.  Men will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground from dread of the LORD…In that day men will throw away to the rodents and bats their idols of silver and idols of gold, which they made to worship.  They will flee to caverns in the rocks and to the overhanging crags from dread of the LORD”

James talks about it:

“You do not have because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not recieve, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.  You adulterous people, don’t you know that a friendship with the world is hatred toward God?”

It is spiritual adultery when we worship anything or anyone other than God.  James has a way of putting things doesn’t he?

Too often I have felt that shudder to my very core when the Holy Spirit helps me uncover some hidden agenda, fear, pattern or habit in my life that is totally missing the Christian mark.  I mean way off!

Then the realization hits me about just how much time I have wasted or how many people I have hurt in the meantime.

The wreckage that needs to be dealt with as well as the sin.

I have told myself what I have wanted to hear too many times so I could keep safe in my little life.  So I wouldn’t have to go through the agony of the shudder moment that has to change everything for me.  Too many things that I have served keep me from being the woman that God created me to be.

The thing is, that once I feel it, name it, deal with it, and ask for forgiveness I must give it over to the cross.

It isn’t easy to give up the regret or shame that those moments can bring.

I fee like if I don’t carry it around for months or years then I am somehow diminishing the suffering that I must feel because of it.

Christ suffered for that sin as well.

If His forgiveness is not for me – then it isn’t for you – and I know it is.

 

 

Jesus’ Politics

Jason Micheli —  March 18, 2013 — Leave a comment

121101065950-red-blue-state-jesus-custom-1This weekend we continued our Counterfeit Gods sermon series by exploring how partisan politics can be an idol, taking away from our ultimate allegiance to Christ. Here’s a great post from Darrell Dow on that same theme:

American politics is religious in its fervor. American religion is political in its function.

No matter how tall the wall that our Constitution has built between the church and the state, you’ll find some people from every political persuasion who will invoke Christian thought as the basis of their convictions. Every agenda has its religious texts and scriptural narratives informed by biblical images. An embattled union is David to the corporate giant’s Goliath. Those seeking social change cast themselves in the role of prophet or Apostle by turns speaking uncomfortable truths to the powerful and spreading the gospel of equality and justice. Most of all, Jesus gets quoted by everybody.

Who doesn’t own Jesus in an election year? Jesus is a Democrat. Jesus is a Republican. Jesus would want more social programs for the poor. Jesus would strike abortion providers dead in their tracks. Jesus would outlaw assault rifles. Jesus would institute the death penalty. Jesus has a seat on every side of every issue. It’s a good thing he’s got divinity on his side because anyone else would likely crack under the strain.

During the last election cycle I even began noticing Vote for Jesus as a slogan on bumper stickers and signs. This campaign to elect the Lord is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that I’m pretty sure Christ doesn’t have a US birth certificate. I can only imagine what Donald Trump would have to say about that.

I’ll have to confess that I’ve never voted for Republican Jesus but I did admire him as I pictured the muscular man who favored free enterprise, led an ear-chopping posse of swordsmen, and taught the poor that the path to happiness was hard work as a cog in the capitalist machine. I imagined that someday he would lead troops into a bloody final battle against the forces of Communism, atheism, and pretty much anybody else that didn’t go to my church. This image of a conquering right-wing Christ was very satisfying stuff in my youth but I’m happy to say that my Jesus isn’t like that anymore and hasn’t been for many years.

Even though my Christ had grown kinder and gentler over the years, however, he was still pretty darn conservative so when I started a new project last month that I’m callingMy Obama Year, I realized that spending twelve months of listening, empathizing, and trying to understand those who live to my political left would mean understanding their Jesus as well. That takes a good deal of doing. Jesus is pretty personal.

The process of rediscovering Jesus comes with a warning: It’s good to be cautious when you start to reconstruct Christ. It would be easy to slip into the path of simply switching out Jesus the Iron-Jawed General for a Jesus that drinks free trade coffee, carries a union card (Carpenters Local 316, perhaps?), and has a Free Tibet sticker on the guitar case he carries to protests. Unfortunately, a liberal caricature of Christ is no more helpful than the extreme right-wing version because it robs us of the main focus of his teachings which were largely personal not political.

Jesus was not a general nor was he an activist. Not only did he never run for election, he never even voted in one. Other than some cutting words about the spiritual conditions of some of the Jewish leadership, his largest political statement was a martyrdom during which he didn’t even bother launching a defense at his own trial. As politics goes, that’s not exactly a great way to have a career.

Maybe Jesus isn’t really anything like the political images painted of him. Perhaps the time has come for all parties and political persuasions to stop claiming to have exclusive rights to Jesus and instead think about what he did teach us — lessons that are bigger than our issues or agendas. He taught outlandish love for our enemies. He taught unthinkable grace toward our neighbors. He told us that the kingdom of heaven is now here. It’s here! It’s here in publicans and in Pharisees; in prostitutes and in preachers; in Democrats, in Republicans, in you, and in me.

What would happen in our country if the kingdom were right now fully realized and grace and graciousness ruled our politics? What if the greatest commandment in our law was love? I can’t really imagine it — which I suppose just means that there is a lot of work still left to do for all of us.

In the meantime should we vote for Jesus? Why would anyone need to? I think that to do so would be as superfluous as it is insulting.

When you live in a kingdom there’s no vote need to vote for the King.

This weekend for our Counterfeit Gods sermon series we’re tackling the idol of politics. Sigh.  I can already imagine what my inbox will be like on Monday morning. 121101065950-red-blue-state-jesus-custom-1

As a pastor, I frequently hear from Christians:

‘I think Christianity is private, personal. Politics should be kept out of the Church.’

I certainly get the fatigue behind the question. Fatigue over our hyper partisan culture and how the Church has dirt all over its hands by participating and encouraging that culture.

And yet when someone makes a statement like that I often ask, in love:

‘Just what bible are you reading?

Because you’ve obviously never read the Old Testament prophets.

Or the Exodus story.

Or any of the Gospels.

Or the Book of James.

Or Revelation.’ 

Like Judaism before it, Christianity has always been a public faith. The first Christians were called an “ekklessia,” meaning they were ‘God’s called-out people.’ Christians, it was believed, lived their faith publicly with very public consequences. Questioners in the gospels asked Jesus about everything from adultery and divorce to poverty, taxes, war and patriotism. St. Paul, on the other hand, wrote most of his letters to churches to help new Christians with the difficulties that came with balancing their faith and their worldly commitments.

Christianity is not, and never has been,

simply an interior faith.

It is not limited to my own inner spirituality or my own personal relationship with God. Nor are the concerns of Christianity limited to the Church sanctuary. Christianity places expectations on its followers that follow them from worship to the church parking lot on Sunday morning and, from there, all through the week.

The way of Jesus offers a particular way for us to be in and view the world, and that the Christian tradition has a needful witness to help us make sense of our lives and the issues that confront us.

Claiming Jesus is Lord meant for the first Christians that Caesar was not. It was a big, bold confession that had implications on every part of their lives.

Even if we don’t like it, confessing the Lordship of Christ should still impact every square inch of our lives too.

But before we can figure out those implications, we need to learn what the first Christians didn’t have to learn; they had the benefit of a unity brought on by mutual suffering under the Empire.

In America, we are, for all intents and purposes, the Empire. In America, Christians first need to learn how to get along.

And listen.

Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor says:

People who are shouting at each other are constitutionally incapable of seeing the image of God in someone else.

 

Our culture is characterized by much shouting. Given the divisive nature of our contemporary culture, how we talk about politics, as Christians, is nearly as important as the conclusions that we draw.

 

121101065950-red-blue-state-jesus-custom-1

Yesterday afternoon, Dennis (my associate pastor for those of you outside the congregation) let me know he couldn’t preach this weekend after all.

So I’m up at the plate this weekend as we continue our Lenten sermon series on idolatry, Counterfeit Gods. And what absolute, crap, spit-ball of a topic do I get?

The idol of…

Politics and Political Partisanship.

Fun.

At least, you know, church people aren’t known to get their panties in a bunch over preachers mentioning politics.

The text for this weekend is the question put to Jesus about taxes. They crucify him right after he answers.

Let’s hope I fare better but I suppose if I’m faithful to the text, I shouldn’t expect to get treated any better than Jesus. 

Here’s a video with some bona fide Jesus truth from Tim Keller on how our poisonous partisan culture is a faith issue and how CIVILITY IS A CHRISTIAN VIRTUE.

If you think being right on an issue is more important than how you speak to or about someone who disagrees with you, then you’re wrong.

At least as it concerns your faith.

And which is the more important? Your faith or your issue?

Don’t believe me, check out Jesus’ brother:

The tongue is placed among Christians as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 

7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 

9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 

10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters. 

This ought not to be so.

– Book of James, chapter 3

Scroll ahead to 4:40 for the bit on Civility and Politics:

 

counterfeit-gods-timothy-keller1I feel a little bit like Esau – betrayed and with a score to settle.

I know she didn’t mean to do it, but my sister pulled a Jacob.

A very difficult family situation feels like a tragedy and a tragedy for me can become an idol.

I am in the middle of it right now, and I know how I need to act, but I don’t want to!

I want to act like Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and stomp my feet and scream “I want it now daddy!  I want it now!”  

But I can’t.  I am a Christian.  That epic realization trumps it all.  It just does.

I have to do it; sooner rather than later, because it is impossible for me to live this way.   As Keller puts it, it is a bloodthirsty deity and hard to appease.  Unforgiveness is a vice-grip that changes how I see everything every day.   I’m still not there yet though.  I woke up with the vice grip around my heart.

She is my only sister.  There are hundreds of reasons and ways in which I can justify my anger and never forgive her.  The only one on the other side of the tally sheet is that I am called to forgive without her even asking; To forgive because I am forgiven.

I am naturally inclined to want justice instead – to make sure that it is fair before I can move to forgive.  Several years ago I recall hearing someone on television talking about how they had been able to forgive the drunk driver that killed their child.  All those around her and even I were shocked and amazed that she would even want to let alone find the path.  It seems like forgiveness on that scale is seen as weakness not strength from the Divine.

Then during my walk Max Lucado spoke to me this morning on the radio.  He reminded me

“relationships do not survive because the guilty are punished but because the innocent are merciful.” 

I’m not all high and mighty sitting up here on my throne of innocence, I’m still trying to figure my part out, but until I forgive and get past this, nothing else is possible.

I feel betrayed by her.  I feel like she destroyed a dream I have had for many, many years.  I believed that God was granting me one of the “desires or my heart.”  I believed that God was bringing the desire of my heart and his will for me together.

I remember when Dennis preached about that and how sweet it is when those two worlds collide.  By her actions she took it away from me.  I wanted it so much. 

Maybe that was the idol – the wanting?

I just know that I must forfeit this idol.

I know that I can do all things through Christ.  I know because God tells me and if it were not so, he would not have told me.  It is the Word of God.  I have faith that He will be there every step of the way with me as I work through this.  I know this because He has accompanied me on this journey before.

My Savior is not unfamiliar with betrayal.

  “Be kind and compassionate to one another. Forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32. 

If I do not, I dishonor Him and I can’t bear to do that again.

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

 

I would rather die than go back to being the person that I was.

I taught my children to lie.

Of course I told them to tell the truth, but I taught them how to lie.

I had to.

I was protecting my way of life by lying to myself and everyone around me.

Keller says that money (and I submit a whole host of other idols) can be a spiritual addiction and like all addictions they hide their true proportions from their victims.  They do what they have to do to feed and perpetuate the addiction.

The heart always wants to justify itself

My precious paradigm cannot be intruded upon when I am living for something other than my God.

When I am not following the Holy Spirit, I tell myself what I have to in order to maintain my way of life.  Self -deception is key if I am to continue to stay comfortable doing what I’m doing.   And, let’s face it, everyone likes to be able to go to sleep at night.

Keller says we look to our idols for significance and security and because we HAVE to have them, we do what we have to do to protect our head from really seeing the desires of our heart – we deceive ourselves.  

That is why I can continue to go to church and bible study week after week, year after year and still be in the same spiritual pits and ruts.

The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same things and expect different results.

 If I am tired of the same spiritual gerbil wheel, I need to jump off and do something different…”this time, I will praise the LORD.“

This time I will put my trust in God.  Find my honor in God.  Find mercy at His feet.  Everything short of that will leave me bankrupt once again.  This time…..

If Leah had continued to resist the simple act of letting go and praising God, still praying to God for answers to the wrong questions, she would never have had the beautiful breakthrough that allowed her heart to be changed – that allowed her to love God and be loved by him.  She could finally praise God.  Her circumstance hadn’t changed – her husband still didn’t love her.  She was still the same rejected and unloved woman she had always been.  But she finally broke the cycle.

“Anyone who listens to the word, but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in the mirror and after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  The man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it.  He will be blessed in what he does. James 1:23-24

This time I have to tell the truth to protect my way of life, my life with Christ.

I have to be responsible for my spiritual growth.  I have to want to be the person that God created me to be badly enough that I am willing to look at those spiritual worms inside me and call them what they are.

Lies.

I would rather die than go back to being who I was.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I waited patiently for Jason to post his last sermon – the one with the glasses of water.  I immediately sent it to my son and his fiancé who are recently engaged.  While their relationship is amazing and beautiful and their commitment solid, I want to make sure they have the Great Bridegroom right in there with them.

Not unlike many of us, as they begin to plan the wedding, they start with the easy stuff.  Choosing flowers and a menu is so much more pleasant than dealing with the expectations and questions of where and by whom they should be married.

It seems they are both bringing some pretty complicated religious baggage and like many of us don’t fit neatly into a denominational box.

I was moved to tears by an email that I received from him recently asking me how I felt and if I had any advice about finding someone to marry them.  (Most priests and many ministers won’t marry couples unless they go through some sort of pre-marital counseling process, which makes complete sense to me.)

But, with all the demands of life, school, work and family, they are just as comfortable going to a Justice of the Peace.

Wow….where do I start on that one?  

You see he grew up as a Methodist….kind of….with a father who is Catholic and a mother who grew up Mormon.  I say kind of because it wasn’t until he was older that I decided that making the effort to go to church was worth it.  That helping him learn about a loving and merciful God might be important.  (The consequences of which is an entirely different post).  By then I had to compete with hockey practice, all sports, girls and any number of things I already had working against me in the get to church department.

I walk a fine line here not wanting him to regret asking. I want to look him in the eye and beg him to bring in Jesus NOW in any and every way possible. He is your Hope. He will hold you together as a couple and as a man.

If I tell him less than that I dishonor Christ.

I have to give him an answer that has some meat.

The Answerer.

None of us need one more thing in our lives to let us down, to disappoint.  If we come to Christ with less than all of our hearts, we will get less of Him.

And less just isn’t enough.

Less will always bring us to our knees.

I love it anytime Jesus offered truth so simply.

“If it were not so I would have told you”

“I tell you the truth”

As Keller put it so beautifully, “His are the only arms that will give you all your heart desires”.

Not your beautiful, wise and loving girl.

She will have her bridegroom Christ as well!

I know his beloved as a wise woman already:  She listens to her mother.

 

We’re continuing our Lenten Sermon Series, Counterfeit Gods, this weekend. Here’s another reflection from Julie Pfister on Tim Keller’s book by the same title.counterfeit-gods-timothy-keller

I’d like to pick up from where I left off last time, but unfortunately, until my family unsubscribes to Jason’s blog, I need to “cool it a bit”

Pick an idol – any idol.  That’s the way it seems to me sometimes.  Trying to exorcise all these false idols from my life can be difficult, but when we (and I mean I) are trying to protect a long held paradigm and comfortable way of life, identifying false idols and calling them what they really are can be the real tough part.

I remember being in a group study for The Hole in the Gospel and trying to find ways to live with myself after realizations that I am even more self-centered, self-absorbed and spoiled than I had thought.  I was seeking advice and honestly struggling with the concept that I could learn about the thousands that die every day from basic hunger as I lament the 15 pounds that I have gained. “How can I learn these things, without being CHANGED?”  I poured out to the group after a long sleepless night.  “Without needing to do more than check a box and donating a few dollars or serving at ROCK?”

“It was great” somebody offered in response, “the other day I got an email that the shelves were empty at UCM, so I cleaned out my pantry and took some food down – it  made me feel really good to do that.”

I asked “that’s great, but what if we need to do more than check that box and do something, that while responsive and generous, checks the box and makes us feel better?”  (I should have added a smiley face to the end of my question)

Somebody never came back to the group again.  I suppose I had offended her by diminishing what she had done, which was a generous act.  However, it was not my intention to diminish her.   I was deeply struggling with a concept that grips many of us in our comfortable lives.

How do we give enough money or time to others without upsetting that balance that we all like to think is more important than spending ourselves for Christ?

I want to be “exhausted for Christ” when I die on the one hand, but on the other hand, I want to just the food out of the pantry that we haven’t used and maybe throw in few other choice items.

People are so kind and effusive with their praise and thanks.  But, frankly, it makes me very uncomfortable.  I know myself well enough to know that it is only by the Grace of God and for His glory that I have time or energy for anything that I do.  Too often I have to fight the lazy bum I can be.

I am prone to wanna hang out on my porch and watch Netflix on my laptop and drink coffee and eat jalapeno chips all day….

I am prone to times of self-pity and self-doubt and subject to shame and regret at the time and opportunities I have squandered.

I am.

“Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.

Prone to leave the God I love

Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above”

 

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.”

 

It’s Ash Wednesday, the day the Lenten season begins. Lent is a time when we imitate Jesus’ own time of testing in the wilderness by confronting the sin and idols in our own lives.

We will observe Lent this year by preaching on the themes in Tim Keller‘s book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. Some of you have insinuated my blog could use  a ladies’ touch. Well, here to prove I’m responsive and always a good listener, to reflect on the book, I’ve asked Julie Pfister, one of the most authentic Christians I know, to blog her way through the book.


counterfeit-gods-timothy-kellerHere’s her first entry:

I have had them myself; stickers on my shiny new SUV (not new or shiny anymore) showing that my family was on its way.  A few of the right schools, waiting and hoping for that empty spot on the back window to have just the right University stickered to it showing the world just how smart and perfect the little family that I had made was.

Like most of us, I didn’t realize it as it was happening.  Pride, like any other idol can be insidious, and so difficult to spot.  But my children, my seemingly perfect little family was on its way.   I wanted room in my car to carry around the whole hockey team.  I wanted my kids to want to have their friends come to my home where I could serve up the milk and cookies.

They did for a while.   Then, things started to awry.  As Keller put it, its not that I loved my children too much, I just didn’t have any room left in my heart or time in my schedule (or theirs) for God.  I wanted my children to be happy, successful, loving and to love me!  Perhaps it is partly because of the culture I grew up in that the desire for the perfect little family was so important.  Having happy, successful, smart, athletic, caring, loving children would validate me as a person – especially since I had quit my job and “sacrificed” (oh please) my career to raise my kids.

Like any false idol, it didn’t take long for the cracks in my perfect little life to really start to show.   My children and family are a wonderful gift and precious blessing to me, but I learned a long time ago, what Keller reminded us, that until or unless we stop trying to map out perfect little lives for our children, and trust God to be their God in the inevitably bumpy and even tragic path that HE has for them, we will be brought to our knees.

Do we pray that they will be Humble, shunning the world and the trappings of success and searching for God? How do we view others children who go off the chosen accepted cultural track…high school, college, graduate degree, career, family, Do we think that there is something wrong if our children “choose” a different path?  Are we not quick to give a qualifying response when we tell someone that our son or daughter is not in college?  How honest can we be with each other when people ask how we are?  How is Sally….Can we really just honestly pray that they will know God?  Will we or they be ok if we pray that God will use them, that they will seek God and God will seek them…..if that means that they go against the cultural norms? How can we as parents hope that God will break our children’s hearts so they can be desperate for HIM.  Do we trust God enough to want that sort of brokenness for them?  What if we pray that our children KNOW God?  Do we trust him with the pieces of their broken hearts?  Do we trust Him to ????  It is so counter-intuitive for me as a mother for my children to want to feel the emptiness and desperation that I have felt.  Do I want my children in the pit of despair?

That same pit that Christ reached down and pulled me out of and set my feet on firm ground and put a new song in my heart!   I loved teaching at the Day School.  With each new class I always felt a twinge of envy along with the joy of meeting the bright and shiny precious, babies and the hopeful, loving parents that brought them. I wondered how they might feel if their child called them something horrible and told them they hated them.

I hoped and prayed that their child would never get beaten to within an inch of his life or disappear for days and weeks at a time.  I wanted to go all Isaiah on them and belt out….Get on your knees NOW and study and learn all that you can….not from Dr. Spock but from the Author of their Life….the Ultimate Educator….so that you are as ready and STEEPED in God and His Word that “when the rest of life unravels”  He and his Word will be such a part of your fabric that you will not.

Some people still tell me, hoping to not offend, that I used to remind them of Barbie….Unless I missed the happily broken, God fearing, Grace loving, sinner Barbie, there is no resemblance.

 

And are United Methodists now reaping the bitter fruit of having done so a century ago?

I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s new book, Center Church, the past week. In it, Keller gives much attention to the task/question of contextualization; that is, how we do communicate our message to the given context in which we live.

Keller notes that it’s not really a question of whether or not we should contextualize.

We can’t avoid contextualization unless we’re willing to avoid communication altogether. Every time we paraphrase a scripture passage, every time we extrapolate a point or a meaning, every time we settle upon what we think is the ‘plain sense’ of scripture we’re contextualizing BECAUSE, after all, we’re also a part of the culture and formed by it in ways we don’t always know.

Just ask Harrison Ford in Witness, Christians can’t avoid being in the world and  we never really cease to be of the world either. 

Preaching, then, is just a simpler term for contextualization.

So the question isn’t if we should translate the Gospel to culture but how.

Keller argues that Mainline (liberal) Christianity in the early 20th century sought to make Christianity palatable to the modern world by redefining orthodox Christian doctrine in naturalistic terms- terms stripped of a reliance upon revelation and the supernatural.

 The result was a Christianity redefined thus:

The Bible is filled with divine wisdom, but this doesn’t mean it’s inerrant. It’s a human document containing errors and contradictions. 

 Jesus is the Son of God but this doesn’t mean he was preexistent or divine. He was instead a great man infused with God’s Spirit. 

Jesus’ death is not a cosmic even that propitiates God’s wrath at Sin. It’s an example of sacrificial love that changes us by moving our hearts to follow his example. 

 Becoming a Christian, then, doesn’t entail the supernatural act of new birth (conversion prompted by grace). It means to follow the example of Jesus, follow the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. 

You can agree or not with Keller’s point of view, but there’s no question the breakdown above quite simply IS the dominant articulation of Christianity among most United Methodist (and other mainline traditions) churches and clergy.

This is what makes most mainline Christians ‘liberal’ even if they think of themselves as conservative politically.

Here’s Keller contention:

You can’t make such adaptations to what scripture is, who Jesus is, what the Cross does and how you become a Christian without creating a religion that is entirely new and alien to Christianity. 

The Mainline/Liberal effort to reconcile Christianity to the modern world of the 20th century (the naturalistic world), Keller says, results not in an adaptation of Christianity but in an entirely new religion that contradicts orthodox Christianity.

Even if you would quibble with Keller’s characterization, his next question remains TNT:

By adapting the faith to the norms of the ‘modern early 20th century world’ did Mainline/Liberal Christianity back the wrong horse?

Mainline Christians a century ago assumed that what was ‘modern’ for them would remain so- that those who clung to a revelation-based, supernatural understanding of the faith would be judged to be on the wrong side of history.

Keller says this was a category mistake.

Late modernity and postmodernity, he notes, has rejected modernism’s confidence that science and reason can ultimately answer all our important questions and that technology can solve all our problems.

In other words, 100 years removed from Methodism’s capitulation to culture, that culture has shifted out from under the Church. 

In other words, Mainline Christianity wedded itself to what is now a fading, obsolete view.

And since adapting its faith claims to the culture a century ago, Mainline Christianity has experienced steep decline; meanwhile, Pentecostalism (the least modern- Enlightenment based- form of Christianity) and Eastern Orthodox Christianity have grown exponentially in the past hundred years.

So its a cautionary tale.

The how of contextualization should refer more to our mode of communication than to the content of our confession.

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.

If you were in worship this weekend, you heard that one of our goals for the coming 18 months is to discern whether God’s calling Aldersgate to plant a new faith community. 

Some may wonder, I’m sure, why we’d start a new congregation when there are plenty of churches around all struggling to fill the pews and pay the bills.

Anticipating your questions, I offer you this essay from Tim Keller, the planting pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, a congregation that has since gone on to plant hundreds of churches around the world.

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Why Plant Churches?

The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for 1) the numerical growth of the Body of Christ in any city, and 2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city. Nothing else–not crusades, outreach programs, para-church ministries, growing mega-churches, congregational consulting, nor church renewal processes–will have the consistent impact of dynamic, extensive church planting. This is an eyebrow raising statement. But to those who have done any study at all, it is not even controversial.

The normal response to discussions about church planting is something like this:

A. ‘We already have plenty of churches that have lots and lots of room for all the new people who have come to the area. Let’s get them filled before we go off building any new ones.”

B. ‘Every church in this community used to be more full than it is now. The churchgoing public is a ‘shrinking pie’. A new church here will just take people from churches already hurting and weaken everyone.’

C. ‘Help the churches that are struggling first. A new church doesn’t help the ones we have that are just keeping their nose above water. We need better churches, not more churches.’

These statements appear to be ‘common sense’ to many people, but they rest on several wrong assumptions. The error of this thinking will become clear if we ask ‘Why is church planting so crucially important?’ Because–

A. We want to be true to THE BIBLICAL MANDATE

1. Jesus’ essential call was to plant churches. Virtually all the great evangelistic challenges of the New Testament are basically calls to plant churches, not simply to share the faith. The ‘Great Commission’ (Matt.28: 18-20) is not just a call to ‘make disciples’ but to ‘baptize’. In Acts and elsewhere, it is clear that baptism means incorporation into a worshipping community with accountability and boundaries (cf. Acts 2:41-47). The only way to be truly sure you are increasing the number of Christians in a town is to increase the number of churches. Why? Much traditional evangelism aims to get a ‘decision’ for Christ. Experience, however, shows us that many of these ‘decisions’ disappear and never result in changed lives. Why? Many, many decisions are not really conversions, but often only the beginning of a journey of seeking God. (Other decisions are very definitely the moment of a ‘new birth’, but this differs from person to person.) Only a person who is being ‘evangelized’ in the context of an on-going worshipping and shepherding community can be sure of finally coming home into vital, saving faith. This is why a leading missiologist like C.Peter Wagner can say, “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.”1

2. Paul’s whole strategy was to plant urban churches. The greatest missionary in history, St.Paul, had a rather simple, two-fold strategy. First, he went into the largest city of the region (cf. Acts 16:9,12), and second, he planted churches in each city (cf. Titus 1:5- “appoint elders in every town”). Once Paul had done that, he could say that he had ‘fully preached’ the gospel in a region and that he had ‘no more work’ to do there (cf. Romans 15:19,23). This means Paul had two controlling assumptions: a) that the way to most permanently influence a country was through its chief cities, and b) the way to most permanently influence a city was to plant churches in it. Once he had accomplished this in a city, he moved on. He knew that the rest that needed to happen would follow.

Response: ‘But,’ many people say, ‘that was in the beginning. Now the country (at least our country) is filled with churches. Why is church planting important now?” We also plant churches because–

B. We want to be true to THE GREAT COMMISSION. Some facts–

1. New churches best reach a) new generations, b) new residents, and c) new people groups. First (a) younger adults have always been disproportionately found in newer congregations. Long-established congregations develop traditions (such as time of worship, length of service, emotional responsiveness, sermon topics, leadership-style, emotional atmosphere, and thousands of other tiny customs and mores), which reflect the sensibilities of long-time leaders from the older generations who have the influence and money to control the church life. This does not reach younger generations. Second, (b) new residents are almost always reached better by new congregations. In older congregations, it may require tenure of 10 years before you are allowed into places of leadership and influence, but in a new church, new residents tend to have equal power with long-time area residents.

Last, (c) new socio-cultural groups in a community are always reached better by new congregations. For example, if new white-collar commuters move into an area where the older residents were farmers, it is likely that a new church will be more receptive to the myriad of needs of the new residents, while the older churches will continue to be oriented to the original social group. And new racial groups in a community are best reached by a new church that is intentionally multi-ethnic from the start. For example: if an all-Anglo neighborhood becomes 33% Hispanic, a new, deliberately bi-racial church will be far more likely to create ‘cultural space’ for newcomers than will an older church in town. Finally, brand new immigrant groups nearly always can only be reached by churches ministering in their own language. If we wait until a new group is assimilated into American culture enough to come to our church, we will wait for years without reaching out to them.

[Note: Often, a new congregation for a new people-group can be planted within the overall structure of an existing church. It may be a new Sunday service at another time, or a new network of house churches that are connected to a larger, already existing congregation. Nevertheless, though it may technically not be a new independent congregation, it serves the same function.]

In summary, new congregations empower new people and new peoples much more quickly and readily than can older churches. Thus they always have and always will reach them with greater facility than long-established bodies. This means, of course, that church planting is not only for ‘frontier regions’ or ‘pagan’ countries that we are trying to see become Christian. Christian countries will have to maintain vigorous, extensive church planting simply to stay Christian!

2. New churches best reach the unchurched–period. Dozens of denominational studies have confirmed that the average new church gains most of its new members (60-80%) from the ranks of people who are not attending any worshipping body, while churches over 10-

15 years of age gain 80-90% of new members by transfer from other congregations.2 This means that the average new congregation will bring 6-8 times more new people into the life of the Body of Christ than an older congregation of the same size.

So though established congregations provide many things that newer churches often cannot, older churches in general will never be able to match the effectiveness of new bodies in reaching people for the kingdom. Why would this be? As a congregation ages, powerful internal institutional pressures lead it to allocate most of its resources and energy toward the concerns of its members and constituents, rather than toward those outside its walls. This is natural and to a great degree desirable. Older congregations therefore have a stability and steadiness that many people thrive on and need. This does not mean that established churches cannot win new people. In fact, many non-Christians will only be reached by churches with long roots in the community and the trappings of stability and respectability.

However, new congregations, in general, are forced to focus on the needs of its non-members, simply in order to get off the ground. So many of its leaders have come very recently from the ranks of the un-churched, that the congregation is far more sensitive to the concerns of the non-believer. Also, in the first two years of our Christian walk, we have far more close, face-to- face relationships with non-Christians than we do later. Thus a congregation filled with people fresh from the ranks of the un-churched will have the power to invite and attract many more non-believers into the events and life of the church than will the members of the typical established body.

What does this mean practically? If we want to reach our city–should we try to renew older congregations to make them more evangelistic, or should we plant lots of new churches? But that question is surely a false either-or dichotomy. We should do both! Nevertheless, all we have been saying proves that, despite the occasional exceptions, the only widescale way to bring in lots of new Christians to the Body of Christ in a permanent way is to plant new churches.

To throw this into relief, imagine Town-A and Town-B and Town-C are the same size, and they each have 100 churches of 100 persons each. But in Town-A, all the churches are over 15 years old, and then the overall number of active Christian churchgoers in that town will be shrinking, even if four or five of the churches get very ‘hot’ and double in attendance. In Town- B, 5 of the churches are under 15 years old, and they along with several older congregations are winning new people to Christ, but this only offsets the normal declines of the older churches. Thus the overall number of active Christian churchgoers in that town will be staying the same. Finally, in Town-C, 30 of the churches are under 15 years old. In this town, the overall number of active Christian churchgoers will be on a path to grow 50% in a generation.3

Response: ‘But,’ many people say, ‘what about all the existing churches that need help? You seem to be ignoring them.’ Not at all. We also plant churches because–

C. We want to continually RENEW THE WHOLE BODY OF CHRIST.

It is a great mistake to think that we have to choose between church planting and church renewal. Strange as it may seem, the planting of new churches in a city is one of the very best ways to revitalize many older churches in the vicinity and renew the whole Body of Christ. Why?

1. First, the new churches bring new ideas to the whole Body. There is plenty of resistance to the idea that we need to plant new churches to reach the constant stream of ‘new’ groups and generations and residents. Many congregations insist that all available resources should be used to find ways of helping existing churches reach them. However, there is no better way to teach older congregations about new skills and methods for reaching new people groups than by planting new churches. It is the new churches that will have freedom to be innovative and they become the ‘Research and Development’ department for the whole Body in the city. Often the older congregations were too timid to try a particular approach or were absolutely sure it would ‘not work here’. But when the new church in town succeeds wildly with some new method, the other churches eventually take notice and get the courage to try it themselves.

2. Second, new churches are one of the best ways to surface creative, strong leaders for the whole Body. In older congregations, leaders emphasize tradition, tenure, routine, and kinship ties. New congregations, on the other hand, attract a higher percentage of venturesome people who value creativity, risk, innovation and future orientation. Many of these men and women would never be attracted or compelled into significant ministry apart from the appearance of these new bodies. Often older churches ‘box out’ many people with strong leadership skills who cannot work in more traditional settings. New churches thus attract and harness many people in the city whose gifts would otherwise not be utilized in the work of the Body. These new leaders benefit the whole city-Body eventually.

3. Third, the new churches challenge other churches to self-examination. The “success” of new churches often challenges older congregations in general to evaluate themselves in substantial ways. Sometimes it is only in contrast with a new church that older churches can finally define their own vision, specialties, and identity. Often the growth of the new congregation gives the older churches hope that ‘it can be done’, and may even bring about humility and repentance for defeatist and pessimistic attitudes. Sometimes, new congregations can partner with older churches to mount ministries that neither could do by themselves.

4. Fourth, the new church may be an ‘evangelistic feeder’ for a whole community. The new church often produces many converts who end up in older churches for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the new church is very exciting and outward facing but is also very unstable or immature in its leadership. Thus some converts cannot stand the tumultuous changes that regularly come through the new church and they move to an existing church. Sometimes the new church reaches a person for Christ, but the new convert quickly discovers that he or she does not ‘fit’ the socio-economic make up of the new congregation, and gravitates to an established congregation where the customs and culture feels more familiar. Ordinarily, the new churches of a city produce new people not only for themselves, but for the older bodies as well.

Sum: Vigorous church planting is one of the best ways to renew the existing churches of a city, as well as the best single way to grow the whole Body of Christ in a city.

There is one more reason why it is good for the existing churches of the region to initiate or at least support the planting of churches in a given area. We plant churches—

D. As an exercise in KINGDOM-MINDEDNESS

All in all, church planting helps an existing church the best when the new congregation is voluntarily ‘birthed’ by an older ‘mother’ congregation. Often the excitement and new leaders and new ministries and additional members and income ‘washes back’ into the mother church in various ways and strengthens and renews it. Though there is some pain in seeing good friends and some leaders go away to form a new church, the mother church usually experiences a surge of high self-esteem and an influx of new enthusiastic leaders and members.

However, a new church in the community usually confronts churches with a major issue–the issue of ‘kingdom-mindedness’. New churches, as we have seen, draw most of their new members (up to 80%) from the ranks of the unchurched, but they will always attract some people out of existing churches. That is inevitable. At this point, the existing churches, in a sense, have a question posed to them: “Are we going to rejoice in the 80%–the new people that the kingdom has gained through this new church, or are we going to bemoan and resent the three families we lost to it?” In other words, our attitude to new church development is a test of whether our mindset is geared to our own institutional turf, or to the overall health and prosperity of the kingdom of God in the city.

Any church that is more upset by their own small losses rather than the kingdoms large gains is betraying its narrow interests. Yet, as we have seen, the benefits of new church planting to older congregations is very great, even if that may not be obvious initially.

SUMMARY

If we briefly glance at the objections to church planting in the introduction, we can now see the false premises beneath the statements. A. Assumes that older congregations can reach newcomers as well as new congregations. But to reach new generations and people groups will require both renewed older churches and lots of new churches. B. Assumes that new congregations will only reach current active churchgoers. But new churches do far better at reaching the unchurched, and thus they are the only way to increase the ‘churchgoing pie’. C. Assumes that new church planting will only discourage older churches. There is a prospect of this, but new churches for a variety of ways, are one of the best ways to renew and revitalize older churches. D. Assumes that new churches only work where the population is growing. Actually, they reach people wherever the population is changing. If new people are coming in to replace former residents, or new groups of people are coming in–even though the net pop figure is stagnant–new churches are needed.

New church planting is the only way that we can be sure we are going to increase the number of believers in a city and one of the best ways to renew the whole Body of Christ. The evidence for this statement is strong–Biblically, sociologically, and historically. In the end, a lack of kingdom-mindedness may simply blind us to all this evidence. We must beware of that.

APPENDIX A- HISTORICAL LESSONS

If all this is true, there should be lots of evidence for these principles in church history–and there is.

In 1820, there was one Christian church for every 875 U.S. residents. But from 1860-1906, U.S. Protestant churches planted one new church for increase of 350 in the population, bringing the ratio by the start of WWI to just 1 church for every 430 persons. In 1906 over a third of all the congregations in the country were less than 25 years old.4 As a result, the percentage of the U.S. population involved in the life of the church rose steadily. For example, in 1776, 17% of the U.S. population was ‘religious adherents’, but that rose to 53% by 1916.5

However, after WWI, especially among mainline Protestants, church planting plummeted, for a variety of reasons. One of the main reasons was the issue of ‘turf’. Once the continental U.S. was covered by towns and settlements and churches and church buildings in each one, there was strong resistance from older churches to any new churches being planted in ‘our neighborhood’. As we have seen above, new churches are commonly very effective at reaching new people and growing for its first couple of decades. But the vast majority of U.S. congregations reaches their peak in size during the first two or three decades of their existence and then remain on a plateau or slowly shrink.6 This is due to the factors mentioned above. They cannot assimilate well new people or groups of people as well as new churches. However, older churches have feared the competition from new churches. Mainline church congregations, with their centralized government, were the most effective in blocking new church development in their towns. As a result, however, the mainline churches have shrunk remarkably in the last 20-30 years.7

What are the historical lessons? Church attendance and adherence overall in the United States is in decline and decreasing. This cannot be reversed in any other way than in the way it originally had been so remarkably increasing. We must plant churches at such a rate that the number of churches per 1,000 population begins to grow again, rather than decline, as it has since WWI.

I get calls all the time to my office from people shaking me down for money. Admittedly some of the calls are from people with a legitimate, sudden need where the church can be a helpful one-time help. However, working as a prison chaplain made me pretty good at recognizing a hustle.

On those days, when I decline to help the caller and instead direct them to one of our partner agencies in the community who are in a better position to assess their needs and route them through county services, it’s not uncommon for my refusal to help to be met by an angry rant about me being a Christian/pastor and I’m obligated to help everyone.

To which I sometimes reply (but always think): Jesus didn’t help everyone.

And he didn’t. Indeed for many an encounter with Jesus seemed to ruin their life not make it better (see: Young Man, Rich).

It can be shocking for readers of the Gospels to realize, perhaps after reading them straight through, that Jesus didn’t offer a miracle to everyone who needed one. He didn’t heal everyone who crossed his path.

His path to the cross was more important. 

That the previous sentence will strike many of you as callous/conservative/dogmatic is revealing. I mean isn’t it telling that in many United Methodist churches the terms ‘mission’ and ‘outreach’ refer exclusively to works of mercy for the poor and refer not at all to professing our core conviction?

Richard Stearns’ is correct that oftentimes our definition of the Gospel has a ‘hole’ in it, yet the Gospel is still a bigger piece of our calling than is the hole.

I think we often lose sight (and I count myself guilty here too) that we serve the poor not because it’s a good thing to do (the Red Cross takes care of that), and not because Jesus told us to and we feel obligated (that would make us just as joyless and duty-bound as Pharisees).

We empty ourselves on behalf of the poor as an expression of our worship of the one who made himself poor so we might become rich. In turn, because Jesus made himself poor we serve the poor with eyes expecting to find him among the poor-who accordingly are actually rich- thus, engaging the poor, is no different than bible study. It’s how we grow more deeply in Christ.

Because mission and service are means of discipleship for us, it’s all the more important that how we engage those ministries reflects and is consonant with our confession about Jesus Christ.

Here’s how a post from Relevant Magazine puts it:

Christianity is about self-sacrifice, but if it’s not for the purpose and glory of Jesus, there really isn’t a point. We would love to tell others we believe it’s all about Jesus. Yet, our actions say we don’t. It’s obvious in how we give. We often give without researching the organizations we’re helping. And when we do research, our focus is often fiscal—what does my dollar accomplish?—not on Christ-inspired outcomes. We must ask, “How are lives being changed?”

For Jesus, the most important outcome possible is the glory of God. When on earth, He profoundly understood that everything should serve this purpose. He also understood that the connection to God’s glory came through His work on the cross, as the savior for God’s people. When we realize this, Jesus’ reasoning for allowing a woman to spend an entire expensive perfume flask on Him makes sense. Those around Jesus scold the woman, because the perfume could have been sold to help the poor. Jesus rebukes them, saying, “For the poor you always have with you, and you can do good for them whenever you want, but you do not always have me” (Mark 14:7). Jesus is foremost.

This is not to say that justice and mercy cannot be brought through non-Christian organizations, because it certainly can. Life change does that; life change also involving the good news of Jesus, though, is even better.

Click here to read the rest of Relevant’s Post.

There’s a saying (cliche) that’s floated around the United Methodist Church for as long as I can remember: ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.” Despite how often people quote this, it’s stupid.

It’s attributed to St Francis of Assisi but frequency of citation has made it almost a Methodist slogan of sorts. And, like all cliches, there’s some wisdom once you dig to the bottom of it. In this case, our actions and way of life with others should be in concert with what we believe about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Sounds good and obvious, right?

However, it’s a cliche that depends upon bad, unhelpful theology. Tim Keller, in his book Center Church, points out that ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies on the assumption that the Gospel is primarily about things we do to achieve salvation, in which case communicating the Gospel can be done without words.

But that’s not the Gospel. 

The Gospel’s not a message of things we must do.

The Gospel’s a message about what we could /can not do for ourselves. The Gospel’s a message about what God has done for us, once and for all. And that’s not a message that’s self-interpreting or self-evident. 

The Gospel requires preaching or, rather, proclamation. As scripture says, salvation comes by ‘hearing.’ Good works are the fruit of hearing the Gospel; they are not the Gospel.

Part of me fears Francis’ quote is so popular in the Methodist world because we’ve lost the ability and the boldness to proclaim, in pulpits and in every day speech, the Gospel. The cliche has become, for us, an excuse. (And part of me wonders if our denominational inability to communicate the Gospel is what has led to us being behind the curve in communicating via social media.)

But with all due respect to Francis, the message about the Word become flesh very definitely and even primarily requires words.