Aug 2 2009

On attending church

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14

On my way to church this morning, I was contemplating my sinfulness, and contemplating how I seem to do this regularly as I drive to church.  It’s not intentional, I just can’t seem to avoid it.  It is an interesting phenomenon – by the time I’m half-way there (my drive is usually about 20 minutes), I have become aware of a number of my weaknesses, shortfalls, issues and, yes, sins.  I’m sure I’m not aware of all of them, but that would probably be too much for me to handle.

I’m not talking about dealing with guilt feelings; this is not a necessarily emotional experience.  No matter what state of mind I am in when I leave the house, by the time I arrive at the church, I am totally in touch with the fact that I am indeed a sinner, and that I depend wholly on grace.

Prior to the last few months, I don’t recall ever having this frame of mind while going to church.  In the past, if I thought about it at all, I went to church as a “saint saved by grace” rather than a “sinner saved by grace.”  I would walk in knowing everything was cool, I would groove to the worship, sit through the sermon, talk to friends and go home often not remembering what the sermon was about. In other words, I would leave as unaware as I went in, perhaps not that much unlike the Pharisee in the parable.

The Church as Creation of the Gospel

Over the last year or two, I have come to believe that the church does not exist as merely a gathering of the saints – a “King’s kids” family reunion, as it were.  The Church is truly created by the Gospel:  It is first and foremost a gathering of sinners –  those who are “being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18).  We are attracted not by the music or the preaching or the aesthetics of the building but as sinners we are attracted by the Gospel; for without the centrality of the Cross the rest is without substance.

Without an awareness of my need for grace, the proclamation by the Priest that

“Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins
through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all
goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you
in eternal life” (Book of Common Prayer)

or its equivalent would not have any meaning, and neither would the Eucharist (communion).

So, this was what I was thinking about as I drove to church this morning.  Whether my recent Sunday morning sin-awareness is a gift from God, an attack from Satan or perhaps due to the fact I am now knowledgeable about the liturgy, it serves the same purpose, to prepare me to worship.  Definitely counter-intuitive.

Today’s sermon

Perhaps not coincidentally, the sermon (based on 2 Samuel 11, the David & Bathsheba incident) was about sin and the Gospel; specifically, our need for a personal awareness of our sinfulness.  It was the first sermon I’ve taken notes on in years.  Here are some of the key quotes:

  • The Gospel is never about someone else; the Gospel is always about you (me). Yes, it’s about God, but what he meant was that a non-personal Gospel is no gospel at all.
  • David’s admission, “I have sinned before God” is full of hope, because it is full of God. Again, awareness of our sin brings hope for forgiveness. Without a personal awareness of our sin, the Gospel doesn’t become personal, either.  An intellectual awareness that “all have sinned” does us no good.
  • Sin doesn’t take much imagination. No one’s sin is all that interesting- there’s nothing new under the sun. However, forgiveness – God’s mercy – is new every morning. Whatever we think about our sin, it’s not all that exciting to God.  However, God is very creative in showing ways to forgive us and bring redemption. (Romans 5:20)

As I began this post, I was aware that a commentary on Luke 18 has the potential of putting me in the Pharisee’s role; conceivably even an awareness of sin can make oneself proud.  Hopefully I’ve avoided doing this.  I have just started meditating on this issue, so my thoughts are kind of random. However, this seems to fit in with Luther’s teaching on Law and Gospel, which very few non-Lutherans (or Lutherans, for that matter – seeing as I was raised Lutheran) understand, as well as his concept of  “simultaneously saint and sinner.”

All I know is, I’m very, very appreciative of the Gospel.

Jul 14 2009

My Episcopal quandary

I find myself in the midst of a quandary.  I have, over the past several months, fallen in love with a church service.  Not a church, mind you, but the service.  As I’ve mentioned in the past, last December I started attending a local Episcopal church.  After being greatly disappointed with Lutheran (ELCA) services, I found the liturgy in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer to be quite good.

And, this church has awesome music, most of the time.  Besides traditional hymns, they will use current songs like “Shout to the Lord” or classics like “The Old Rugged Cross.” Even the sermons are good.  Being sacramentally-oriented anyway, I have become dependent upon the completeness of worship that the liturgy provides, especially celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly.  During a fairly unsettled period in my life, church on Sunday morning is my one safe place, the eye in the middle of my often stormy life.

The problem is, the denomination has left the faith.  I can’t tell from a normal Sunday morning, but I know of the issues behind the scenes.

The LA Times reported today,

Leaders of the Episcopal Church, gathering in Anaheim for their first national convention in three years, reopened fractious debate this week over whether to authorize marriage rites for same-sex couples and to repeal a de facto ban on the consecration of gay bishops.

The issues have caused painful divisions in the 2.1-million-member denomination, which in recent years has seen dozens of parishes and four conservative dioceses, including one in Central California, break away. Last month, the dissidents formally launched a rival church.

Despite warnings about the consequences, liberal Episcopalians at the meeting are championing a flurry of resolutions to expand participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in church life, with votes expected in coming days. The conference, the church’s General Convention, runs through Friday.

This is actually nothing, compared to what is also going on.  The Anglican Church in North America, the newly-formed group referred to in the article, has published a booklet charging the Episcopal Church (TEC) with a number of heresies. While perhaps not specifically adopting heretical positions, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and other prominent leaders have made numerous heretical statements denying that Christ is the only way to salvation, denying the resurrection, denying Christ’s deity, and so on.  One priest is openly Muslim, and anther is a known Buddhist (I think they dd draw the line at Satanism, however).

TEC appears committed to being “all churches to all people,” becoming a nearly-universalist organization.  Furthermore, TEC has taken to filing lawsuits against many churches who have made the decision to leave TEC over these issues.  What is ironic is that it is TEC that has departed from the larger Anglican Communion.

So, that’s my quandary.  Now, I don’t know for sure where this church would stand in relation to these issues. The Priest in Charge (the Rectorship is currently open) appears to be fairly level-headed. He is, at least, a C.S. Lewis fan.  However, I know that there are many in the church that are Marcus Borg fans (I think Marcus has some interesting things to say, but he questions the factual nature of much in the Bible).

I do plan on calling the Priest in Charge and making an appointment to address these concerns. However, a part of me just wants to enjoy the liturgy, and ignore the rest.  That could work, at least until TEC decides to change the liturgy.

May 17 2008

The down side of Christianity

Is it this place that makes me fall from you
Forget the words that once rang so true
Did we expect that life was ever fair, my god . . .
I sowed a field of rose and reaped a whipping rod
And everything I’ve held too tight inside
Could make a part of me die
And if my lips could only speak the name
The dam would break

– Glen Phillips, Dam Would Break

Doubt. Pain. Suffering. Loneliness. Failure. Despair. Disappointment.

This is not a list of demotivational posters, but rather “words that you should never say in church.” Or, at least that’s how it seems sometimes. Michael Spencer recently blogged:

The language of lament is not welcome in most contemporary Christianity. Evangelicals in particular must be held responsible for creating an atmosphere where a person in pain and loss cannot speak in the SAME LANGUAGE THE BIBLE USES (excuse the caps. Sorry.) without running the risk of controversy and heresy.

Ironically, Christians specialize in the language of glory and triumph, gullibly believing any report of miracles and healings must be true in order to prove that God is still doing what they’ve been told he should always do, but it is the experience and language of lament- disappointment and sorrow- that would tell honest unbelievers that we live in the same world as they do, yet still believe in God. Our proficiency in triumphalism backfires with the genuine souls who want to know if God is still there when he seems so absent.

While I do appreciate Kingdom theology, and believe that God is alive and well and that miracles still happen, the reality is that life is a struggle.  I mean, just look at Jesus – even he struggled. Read that Garden scene again.  David Hayward, one of my favorite cartoonists and bloggers, has addressed this issue of “happy Christianity” many times. One of my new favorites is here.

That’s not to say that everything Joel Osteen says is garbage; in fact, I find what he has to say about thinking positively and believing what God says very important, especially in dealing with the issue of suffering, doubt, and so on. You see, many of our problems are simply our own fault. Christians can be just as stupid as anyone else, and changing your attitude and approach to life can avoid many needless trials and tribulations. That, however, doesn’t mean that there aren’t real struggles to deal with.  People get sick, people die, bad things happen to good people (and good things happen to bad people). Life isn’t fair.  To paraphrase the old song, God never promised us a rose garden.  There’s a time to laugh, and a time to lament.

Paul says that creation is groaning in anticipation of redemption. So why should we be any different?

Apr 9 2008

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life

I find that I sometimes have issues with what Michael Spencer has to say over at, but I do appreciate his willingness to think outside of his particular box. He comes from a Southern Baptist background, I believe, although he considers himself “post-evangelical.” As with all of us, it’s very difficult to completely shake off the grid we were raised in, so I think we would see the same thing still from very different viewpoints. But then, sometimes I find him very much right on.  In his post from yesterday, he makes some very good points concerning how many evangelicals approach evangelism, contrasted with how Jesus approached it:

I think it’s telling that the two most prolific evangelism programs in evangelicalism both approach their audience with questions that Jesus never used.

“Do you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?”

“If you were to die tonight, and God were to asked you, why should I let you into my heaven, what would be your answer?”

He points out that Jesus merely proclaimed the Kingdom of Heaven, which had very different connotations than our dangling Heaven on a stick (my terminology). Spencer continues:

Evangelicalism is a religion of decisions and transactions. Jesus proclaims the arrival of the reign of God. There are decisions to be made, but reducing the Gospel to a decision to accept “God’s plan for my life” or giving the right answer to the question of how to go to heaven seems to have moved well past what Jesus was doing in his earthly ministry.

He’s been reading NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope, which I think probably prompted the post, although the thinking is obviously his own. I don’t think what he says is necessarily new, but it bears repeating.

My own take

My own background, as my faithful readers know, is Lutheran. After being “evangelized” away from the Lutheran church in my early 20s, I have lived among the evangelicals for about 30 years, however I never really became one of them. I’ve adopted the term “Lutheran expatriate” for lack of any better description.

When I first found myself in college (actually, I didn’t really find myself until a few years later), I hung with various campus groups, including InterVarsity and Campus Crusade. I was terribly turned off by the CC bunch, who were bound and determined to get me to say their little prayer; no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t convince them that I was “saved.” I stopped going there after a couple of weeks, and did my best to avoid them after that. So, from that time on, the line “Did you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?” became somewhat of a joke for me.

While I appreciate the point Michael Spencer is making, I now have to say that I think the question is valid; not only that, but years later it became one of my basic messages. I think that it is absolutely true that God loves you and does indeed have a wonderful plan for your life. The problem is not in the question, it’s in the application.

God’s plan is not just to get you into Heaven (or saved from hell). Have you ever noticed that while Jesus definitely emphasized the spiritual kingdom rather than Earthly interpretations (as the Jews did), his plan was to get people into Life, not into Heaven. “The Kingdom of Heaven is within reach.” That didn’t mean that they’d all be dead soon, it meant that you could reach out and touch it; it was here, it was now, it was happening.

With Jesus’ death and resurrection, he didn’t just buy us tickets to Heaven; he began the re-creation of the world. Everything changed. The reality of the resurrection (for everyone) was one thing that became reality. The second was the “pouring out” of the Holy Spirit “upon all flesh.” It’s a brave new world. We don’t even realize it, but we can’t comprehend a world without the Holy Spirit (and I believe that applies to non-Christians as well). God’s plan is for us to step into the ongoing re-creation of everything, where “with God, all things are possible.”

Live the resurrection! God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.