Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Church -- it's not over yet...

I've been thinking a lot about revival recently. A number of dear friends have written off the 'institutional' church as a thing of the past, and it bothers me. Even with all of my orneriness I can't go that far. Why not? I've been thinking about it and it comes to this. A history of revivals will quickly reveal that when God moves mightily in a culture, where do the people do? They go... to church. The prodigals come home, the new believers make it their new home and the church is renewed in the process. And guess what, against all of our counter-culturism, (some of it expressed in this very blog) the church doesn't change in essentials too much. It merely is re-strengthened to withstand the depredations and bewilderments of the next cultural shift. Take the Jesus people for example. God moves among the hippies. Boy-oh-boy, what fertile ground for a brand new type of church, a culturally relevant church, a cool church... Oops, sorry, where'd they all go? They went to local churches and filled up the traditional services and apparently couldn't get enough of it. Even the churches they started have become part of the larger organized church -- another denomination. And you can't say that they were seduced or anything like that. When God's Spirit is moving in unchurched people it's a bit like the cows hitched to the cart of the ark of the covenant in I Samuel. You just watch and see where God will take them. If they go somewhere surprising, it's very significant.

So I've become convinced again that the church is God's plan. His only plan. If he comes in like a mighty wind to bring revival to the world, the results of that revival will come to church. And probably it won't be some counter-cultural movement of house churches or anything. They will fill our vacant sanctuaries and we will not know what to do with them. And the best thing we can do is pray for that event.

Because it's time. It's time for quantity again. Quality alone is not going to do it for us. Quality will dwindle and die without quantity. It's time to pray for churches full of disciples, all in right relationship with God and each other, disciples who love and follow Jesus with all their hearts, filled with the Holy Spirit such that they shake the world every time they get together. This is where my pilgrimage has taken me.

And we really can't tweak the church too much in advance of that. Guess what, if millions come, the work that we thousands have done to remake the the church after some pattern that is more appealing to us will be swept away because it's whatever the millions want that will happen. Will it be God laughing at us? Maybe. Are we willing to lay down our cherished issues for the coming of the kingdom?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

On being 'in'

Once upon a time, in another church, in another life, long ago, I was 'in.' I could call up the pastor, have coffee and discuss issues I thought were important and I was listened to. I also had the respect of other leaders besides the pastor. And yes it was a small church. But I was valued for my contribution. Or maybe, to avoid being performance oriented, I should say my contributions were valued. I might touch on that later. Some of my early ministry opportunities even arose from such encounters. "Can I do this thing that's on my heart to do?" "Okay, let's see how you do."

A blissful experience of connection. But it didn't last. You see, we moved away. Moved to different area, and moved our membership to a big, famous, church. In the new church, although many other things were very much to my liking, I was a mere number, an unimportant peon, an eternal trainee and very much disconnected from the leadership of the church. Moreover, we were pretty frequently told from the pulpit, that there was no way to get to the inner circle because, and how simple a solution to this perennial problem, there was no 'in.' I knew that for our then pastor to say such a thing, he had to be lying, especially to himself. Anyone with half a brain could easily have told him different, and could have easily told him who was 'in' and who was out. But there truly was no way to tell him. You just couldn't. Since then we have gone through other pastors, and it was largely the same. One fellow had the talent of making me think he cared what I said while among his inner circle, I found later, he expressly excluded me.

It's been a frustrating experience. Some of the frustration, I'm sure, has come out in some of my earlier posts on this blog. So why do I write about this now? Well suddenly and quite surprisingly, I have found that I am now 'in.' Same church (somewhat smaller) about twenty years later, and my ideas and issues are actually being listened to. I find that I can have enjoyable and substantive discussions with (we don't have a pastor at this time) probably our main decision maker and he seems to really listen. I know this because other friends of his are my close friends as well. I'd actually forgotten what it felt like. I came home from having 'coffee' (steamed milk, plain, actually-- coffee turns my stomach) with him and said to my wife that the last time I felt like that was twenty years ago at the church I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

So how does one respond to being 'in?' I'm not exactly sure. I've had so much practise speaking from the outside, seeing objectively and subjectively the effect of the gatekeepers, the ones who systemically slam the door in the face of any wannabe interloper, the necessity of real process for new people to be involved in ministry -- a process not based on mere relational connection to the leaders, and other stuff that the outsider sees but the insider typically ignores. The insider doesn't see any of those issues, because he's past that. He's earned his place, through merit, talent, anointing (one spiritual elitist I have known, liked the phrase 'government on you') or some such, and others just plain need to let go and let God take them from a place of "hiddenness" to a place of "revelation" in his own time. Because, you see, there's a whole teaching that supports this dichotomy, a spiritualized justification for shutting the door and protecting the inner circle from the outsiders. (I'm not going to expound upon it right now. If you've heard this stuff, you'll know) The insiders will smugly teach it and the outsiders will either grit their teeth and know it for what it is, or accept their role as the aforementioned eternal trainees, the quintessential sheep...

See how good I am at being an outsider? But I have no idea how to be an insider. It's been so long.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Experimental Experience

There are so many things in this world and in the kingdom that you can't know about until you do them. Right now I'm learning (again) that praying earnestly and regularly for that which is reasonably impossible benefits me on the inside in incalculable ways. And I can't say much more about it, except, "try it, you'll like it."

Saturday, February 13, 2010

An Evangelical Conundrum

I'm hearing rumours that a battle is raging all around me and I was unaware of it. Something has pitted evangelical against evangelical and many have no choice but to watch the new and old theologians duke it out. The question that is coming to the fore is at the heart of Christian Theology. And it's this: What was the purpose of Christ's death? Was it so God could punish sin in his Son instead of punishing us? or Was Jesus on the Cross victoriously culminating the Incarnation by dying the worst of all possible deaths? The rift is deep over these two views. Apparently very deep.

My response (from completely outside the debate, you understand) is a simple (Shakespearian) "a plague on both your houses." Christ's call to us is one of obedience, not having correct theory. We are human, we are fascinated by our Father's world, by his Story, by his Nature etc. It's very natural. I love doing it. But what did Christ say to those he called, and presumably still says those he still calls? "The Kingdom of heaven is near; repent and believe the Good News." Also "Come, follow me." I'm indebted to Peter Davids for explaining that in the parlance of the times, those two commands are pretty nearly equal. So our primary call is to follow Jesus, not (primarily, again) to work out all the facts and hypotheses of how what he did for us works. Of course we will theorize anyways. He knows it. He made us this way. But sometime we will actually have to follow him and leave the rest to the One who really understands what it all means.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Little Here, A Little There

Topical teachings: What are we to do with them? I mean really. What? A clever and charismatic person has gleaned his way through the Bible, sifting out verses like brush strokes in a large canvas that he has spread out for his listeners, leading them to a realization, a grasping of the wonders of his new big picture, a paradigm to judge everything else by... A sort of connect-the-dots or paint-by-numbers approach to Bible study that's quite compelling when well done. Well you may well have sat under many of these teachers. I certainly have. All the way from IBYC to YWAM and everything in between. And I'm tired of it. Quite tired of it.

Okay I see the need for something like it. There's background to all the Bible that an unsuspecting reader might not pick up on. There are throwaway comments that have much more behind them, that have to be explained in a larger context than just that of the passage. The whole backdrop of the Bible is out there and the clues are littered all through the book. Sounds like I've justified this thing that so I'm tired of. Well no. I haven't. If the object of topical teaching was to give the listener the whole big picture all at once, I could be understanding. But it's not. What it frequently does is give a different big picture for every new teaching, a picture which advertises itself as the key to everything, when in fact it's only a small part of a larger puzzle and is apt to skew the whole thing if taken as seriously as the teacher seems to advocate.

In the quest of fairness, I listened to about an hour of Andrew Wommack's teaching today (my friend that I mentioned earlier pointed out some stuff I didn't take into account on my last foray into his material). I found it depressing on several fronts. He was advocating looking at everything through those glasses labeled "Battle With Satan" (my paraphrase). That instead of staying with explanations found in the natural world, we should be looking at events as having primarily spiritual causes and effects. And mostly that personal criticism, and events we consider negative should all be examined with the idea that Satan is often behind the negativity. Personally I believe that that gives a finite, albeit spiritual and powerful being far to much credit (Jesus really is infinitely much greater than he) and presumes a lot more notoriety that any of us have in the '2nd Heaven.' (as some are wont to call the realm of the enemy) Secondly I found that where freedom and mercy are given in Christ, they are snatched back by this teaching in the name of needing to be careful in the war zone. -- "Can't be too careful what we say, How we react, etc... -- We could be giving the enemy a foothold." It looks to me like legalism in a new guise. Thirdly I think that assuming a higher plane of existence in human interaction, so that every conflicting input from our fellow man is now somehow to be either spiritual or fleshly, is not supernatural, but simply unnatural and smacks not of discernment but pride.

So I was going to respond to him in a blog post (even more than the above), when I noticed that much of what he was saying only made sense if you accepted a whole host of assumptions which were already a given to him, assumptions that all could do with some examination, and I realized it's not just a teaching (a fairly common one in charismatic circles, I might add) about spiritual warfare that needs addressing; it's the whole culture of working up these teachings that needs a total rethink. I think that we rely way too much upon connected dots for some of our cherished teachings with spiritual warfare being only one of many. A classic example (still in the spiritual warfare section and now widely discredited) would be putting the "Put on the full armor of God," passage with the "struggle against principalities and powers" and add to it that passage about binding and loosing and we have the weird practise of binding the enemy in prayer over a city, something we never see Jesus doing (he was too busy actually binding the enemy through his works of power here on earth!) Was that practise at all presaged by either passage? I think not. That's only one line of two dots. Some teachings have many. And you have to hear the whole teaching to really appreciate it.

Which is where I bring in the title to this post. Isaiah writes of possibly drunken prophets doing a hebrew version of blah de blah de blah which has been famously mistranslated as "rule on rule, precept on precept, a little here, a little there..." Rumours are that some have taken this as a justification for the complication they hold dear. Justifying that if you don't accept the earlier part of the construct, if you don't buy the distortions presented at the beginning, the later parts make no sense at all.

I guess I'm sort of out of steam here. I'm trying to articulate what for me is somewhat blurry, something that's mostly a feeling. I suppose my plea is most of all that each new teaching, and they will continue to proliferate, whatever I may say about it, at least have some built in humility to lead one to subordinate and integrate it into the main and plain message of the Bible (and yes I believe that such a thing exists) that needs 'no rule on rule' to make it make sense. Reducing the number of extra-biblical assumptions we base it on would help, too.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Conversation

In my previous post about the Bible I referred to the realization that as I read scripture, I am listening in on other peoples conversations with God. Mulling over that further, I see that the most worthwhile time of my life is in my own conversation with my Father. Is this rank (and insidious) individualism on my part? But I am, as are most of you, if you'll admit it, an individualist at heart, and I must just deal with it and be what I am.

The Conversation starts with birth. I am put into the world as a new (or pre-existent; it matters not) soul, unaware of any prior contact with my creator, and what I know, I know by observation of others, especially family members. I am taken to church, I told Bible stories, I am led to pray. (This is my story-- there are many who haven't had the same advantages.)

Somewhere along the line I realize that it's not just all one sided. God didn't just speak way back when and now we speak forever into the void as a response. Rather we talk now and he listens, and then he talks and we listen. Or at least that would be the ideal. What's sometimes closer to the truth is we rant and he listens and then he whispers sense to us and we shut him out. The disconnect in the conversation would seem to be our tendency to do the 'la la la I can't hear you' thing. That is why there's a need for the Bible. And a need for the larger Church. Whatever faults there are in the Church and whatever difficulties in the way some people approach the Bible, the alternative lack of either or both is unacceptable. We need reminders, we need to listen in, to be invited to listen in on the other conversations going on around us. God gets through, so to speak, with at least some of the people, much of the time. And the spill over from those conversations, we can't do without. (Even my cherished individualism will fail me at times!)

But as time goes on and I learn not to shut him out, some of what he says and some of what I say to him is private. This is a special moment for anyone to reach. The idea of sharing a unique and special secret with the God of All the Universe is intoxicating beyond belief. If you need an upgrade in your self-image, try living here. If God values you and considers you trustworthy with his secrets, nothing can trump that, if you truly believe it.

Anyhow, this is my pilgrimage, and every so often, I promise that I will move out of my ornery space and just show up as a pilgrim...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

What is the Bible?

A friend of mine has encouraged me to have a look at the teachings of Andrew Wommack. And so I had a look at the website. I wasn't particularly thrilled. Oh, I like his attitude as a netizen, -- most of his material is right out there to read. You don't have to buy all his teachings to get an idea of what his message is. It's his message I have some difficulty with. It's not that new as an idea -- it's somewhat what I grew up with. But I can't really stomach some of it any more.

It's his theory of the Bible that bugs me. Take this from the currently featured article -- "A Sure Foundation"

A true revelation of God’s Word is the single most important element of a victorious Christian life. The Word of God often refers to itself as a seed...
Okay, why is this a problem? First of all I take issue with the superimposition of the phrase "The Word of God" over what is really meant, which is the Bible. Why is this a problem? Because it defeats any thought process we might have when we read the Bible. If something is "the Word of God," then we better not think about it at all-- straight ahead obedience is all that is in order. But that does not work when it comes to the Bible; as Christians, there are are parts that we obey and others we clearly don't. There's a clearly established thought process that has gone before us to highlight that which is relevant and background that which is not. That process is not over and must continue. But if we persist in using religious titles like this our necessary critical judgement is emasculated.

Secondly, (actually firstly, but I really needed to make the earlier point first so that what I say now makes sense) how can any Christian make the Bible, or the revelation thereof, "the single most important element" of his life? I thought Christ was supposed to have that place. No? Or maybe we should try to be known as word-of-god-ians. But it is not to be borne. Everything in the Bible is subservient to knowing Jesus, and even the Bible must be the same. So, boom! there goes the main premise of Wommack's article. But there's one thing more. And it's probably the thing that sparked this response in the first place.

So thirdly, the phrase "the word of God often refers to itself as a seed" is a problem. What it assumes is a book that is somehow self aware across all the diverse and time divided writings contained there in, a book that somehow exists in a plane above itself, so that discrete words and phrases spoken to specific people for specific purposes in specific situation, all somehow suddenly lose their meaning in the new emergent larger context. And many people seem to believe that about the Bible. Problem is, it can't be true.

Why not? Let's start with an argument I found in the a book by Peter Kreeft regarding Catholicism (very likely it was Catholic Christianity but I don't have the book on hand right now so I can't check.) He successfully attacks the sola scriptura position of the post-reformation protestants and demonstrates (sufficient to my mind) that if you are going to take that view, you have to actually accept sola ecclesia because it was the "ecclesia" (i.e. the Catholic Church) that brought you the "scriptura." You can't take the fruit of a poison tree and arbitrarily declare it good while condemning the tree. I'm not going to examine sola vs. sola just now. What I am going to say is that it was the church acting in an authority given it by Jesus, who chose the books of the Bible. It was not the books of the Bible somehow assembling themselves mystically in the heavens and appearing to us as "THE WORD OF GOD."

Another reason why it can't be true is that there is no clear prophetic reference in the Bible, especially in the Gospels, where you'd expect it if it was so important to Jesus' church that he would build, to the present day existence of the Bible. Something like "After me a book will be formed which..." But there's nothing like that. You'd expect that if "a true revelation of the [Bible]" was so "important," Jesus would point us in that direction. There are lots of references to the books we now call the Old Testament, that many teachers, not caring what damage they do the text they claim to defend, have extended to cover the whole collection. But you cannot really make the case from the Bible for the Bible.

For the Bible is a collection of writings, a library that has come down to us from our spiritual forefathers in ancient times. It was gathered and canonized by authorities we respect (although some of us do feel free to disagree with those same authorities on other points... more in later posts I'm sure.) and we are thankful for the resource it is. It does not speak with only one voice. It speaks in a chorus. And to my mind acquires much more authority thereby. Some voices we must listen to closer than others. Jesus' voice must be the clearest, or we are lost.

Why do I read the Bible? Knowing that what I seek is more caught than taught, as the saying goes. I read it that I may somehow catch what Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, Luke had. I read and listen to their voices so that I might actually know (grok: see below) them, because it was them, not their mere words, that was the temple of the Holy Spirit in their time and I want to be such a temple, now. I do not ignore direct commands, but I recognise that much in the Bible is a conversation I am listening in on and I need to take what I hear to God to see how it applies to me.

So to say it positively, thereby to negate what I take as an insidious first premise of Wommack's article: A true revelation of Jesus is the single most important element of a victorious Christian life. The rest of his article is an interesting read, and there'd be lots of stuff to discuss there, but this is a blog post and I don't really have time to go into all that...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ekklesia and Gerousia

As the basis for the following post, I lean heavily on Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter by Thomas Cahill. The book is one of a series which he calls the "Hinges of History" which I recommend to anyone who cares about how the world (mostly the 'western' part) has become what it is. The Irish, the Jews, Jesus, the Greeks, and the Middle Ages, are each scrutinized for their contribution in fascinating detail, each in a separate book.

In Sailing Cahill paints an illuminating contrast between two Greek cities, Athens and Sparta. Athens was ruled by a raucous direct democracy, a town hall meeting which met over forty times a year, which achieved quorum only if at least 6,000 (yes, that's three zeroes) of the citizens were present, but typically were attended by about 10,000 voters. A these meetings, magistrates and war leaders were elected, and laws passed, all in the most noisy, rollicking manner. Culturally, the city flourished. Education, Philosophy etc. Drama as we know it has its origins in Athens. (you get the picture. It's a bit rosy, but it will do for a blog)

Sparta on the other hand was ruled by a council of old men. Citizens, by long custom, had 'better things to do' than participate in the running of the City. The 'privileged' classes (er, the males of the privileged classes) dedicated their austere and colourless lives to military training/service from age 12 all the way to age 60. The helots, i.e. the less privileged half of Sparta, lived in a state of serfdom, feeding the elite and getting stick for it. (every year the council would actually declare ritual war on the helots to forestall any potential revolt by killing off the likely leaders.)

These two forms of government each have a name, Sparta's council was called the gerousia. When Athens gathered together for participatory rule, it was ekklesia. On exposing that bit of historical etymology, Cahill points out the irony that, the original Greek term for what we call church, ekklesia (and could be the word Jesus himself chose... although it's a fair bet that Jesus taught in Aramaic, not Greek, so we don't know that for sure) would have drifted so far from what New Testament Greeks would have understood it to really mean, into something more like gerousia.

Now Cahill is writing from the point of view of an American liberal Catholic, so church for him is more gerousiac than it ever has been for me and he seems to be in despair at the end of the last book The Mysteries of the Middle Ages. (Thomas if you ever read this, there are more options than Catholicism!) But the question remains. Jesus said "I will build my ekklesia." (If he said it in Aramaic instead, then the gospel writers, chose 'ekklesia' by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so whatever he actually said is somewhat moot. The powerful sense of it's original usage still stands.) How can we be so far from that now, and still use the same term -- or the word translated from it, that is church?

There are some functional answers such as they are-- and they are incomplete. One of them has to do with the tutelary nature of the church. In any church one always expects to see a number of the uninitiate, the ones who simply need to be taught what we are about-- ones who need to be guided. I think that was far more the case in the early church, and by constant custom and need for guidance, the permanence of that guidance was simply assumed and the clergy was born. Another force I see pulling us away from an Athenian ekklesia experience, is laziness. We don't want to be bothered with running the church. We lose some ownership thereby, I think. Also there is the need for creating a safe environment for the wounded, the weak and the children. Control becomes a goal.

These are not pernicious forces -- they are merely human. But that doesn't mean we can't inject some of the original meaning back into church and participate again...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A New Entry in Christian Vocabulary

OK, here's where I play the part of the compleat geek. There's a word which originated in a science fiction work (Robert Heinlein's Stranger in A Strange Land) that has been achieving wider and wider usage aided by this medium, the world wide web, that English speaking Christians would be well advised to start adopting. It's not a pretty word but it encompasses something we just haven't got in the English language. That word is "grok."

wikipedia describes grok like this

To grok (pronounced /ˈɡrɒk/) is to share the same reality or line of thinking with another physical or conceptual entity. Author Robert A. Heinlein coined the term in his best-selling 1961 book Stranger in a Strange Land. In Heinlein's view, grokking is the intermingling of intelligence that necessarily affects both the observer and the observed. From the novel:
Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthly assumptions) as color means to a blind man.
Yup. There's something missing in our concept of knowledge (as in "Do you know God?") that this word could definitely fill. For years we've pussyfooting around with the dichotomy between heart-knowledge and head-knowledge and still, both of them elude us. The closest thing in English, is the word 'get' as in "Do you get it?" but even that doesn't describe the true 'Holy Grail' of our quest. Do you grok God the Father? Do you grok Jesus? Do you grok the Holy Spirit? (Nuff Said)

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Arbitraries of the New Testament

Who decided the book order of the New Testament? I ask the question belligerently. The information is out there, I'm sure. But I don't care about that. Maybe I should say, 'What idiot decided...?' but that would be too strong. At any rate there are some very unfortunate consequences of the popular book order of the New Testament.

The most humorous, I think, is the placement of Revelation at the end so that by inference, the warning at the end of Revelation not to alter the book somehow extends to the whole bible. Very convenient, very appealing to the literalists among us. Similar to Paul's advice to Timothy, advising him to go ahead and use the Old Testament, "All scripture is inspired by God..." and the way that is extended into the New Testament. Absolutely, you shouldn't alter any of the bible and yes, the New Testament is inspired, but to use those passages to support those worthy propositions is perhaps kind of shortsighted.

But that's by the by. The thing that galls me the most about New Testament book order is that the epistles follow the gospels. This has the strange and twisted effect of letting Paul have the last word over Jesus. What? Well, think about it. Progressive revelation. Great hermeneutical concept. We gaze on earlier parts of the bible through the lens of later parts. Well it may have failed us in this case... because of the book order. For one thing, most of the epistles were likely to be written before most of the gospels, so although the events of the gospels are before the missionary events that bring about the need for the epistles, some of the material in the gospels could actually be a corrective to stuff in the epistles. But by ordering the books as we do, we could be subverting that purpose.

Take for example, the seeds of patriarchal, and authoritarian hierarchy littered through Paul's letters. It's a theme he loves to play. "Timothy, my son" ... "I became your father," and other similar phrases. Also, the references to the elders (many of which he had put in place) being "worthy of double honor" There's lots of stuff like it. But hold on, what happened to Jesus' earnest command not call anyone "father" and not be like the rabbis and their seats of honor and regalia, not to lord it over each other, etc. etc? Every time Jesus refers to any hierarchy he squashes it flat. Frequently. (the most stunning to my mind is the laundry list of things gained and lost in the kingdom -- the one in Mark loudly omits fathers as something that you receive back in the kingdom - Mark 10:29,30) But since Paul is 'after' Jesus, we think, "oh well Jesus can't really have been serious about that after all..."

There's no problem with Paul saying these things. His worldview is likely one of patriarchal authority, and he's going to speak from inside his worldview. We all do. But I think he needed correction from the source of all righteous correction, Jesus. And the Gospel writers, writing at the same or later time, inspired by the Holy Spirit, recalling the words of Jesus, brought it. But through history, through ignorance (not the lack of knowledge, but the ignoring what Jesus actually said) we have followed Paul rather than obeyed Jesus. My NIV study bible, normally such a good resource, as a footnote to the famous "call no man father" passage in Matthew, dismisses it with "Obviously, we shouldn't take this literally..." Balance, shmalance. To put it in the most loaded religious language (and even that has its uses) How can we take the words of the Son of God and 'balance' them against the practises of his servant (Paul) or the whole church hierarchy that followed? And all this (maybe) because the ordering of the books of the New Testament.

OK I'm not against leaders in the church. People function better when directed in some way in some circumstances -- but in my view they function far better as they take ownership of the church they call theirs. What I am against is pedestalia. The tendency of some people to prostrate themselves before other people is just plain wrong (the whole teaching on covering comes in here somewhere.) The tendency of others to arrogate themselves on spiritual grounds is plain wrong. And if Paul had a skewed idea of authority (as I think he did) then the idea that we are locked into one form of church government ("that's the way Paul did it") is questionable. At any rate this is where this pilgrim is right now...