Friday, May 30, 2008

Don't forget to get official permission,

Bickering amongst Roman Catholic apologists has highlighted the fact that not all who speak for Rome bothered to get permission from Rome to do so. Getting official permission to speak on thoelogical matters on behalf of your church sounds like a good, respectful thing to do.

I have been in settings where I have spoken on theological issues on behalf of my church and I have always made a very hard and fast distinction between what I express as my understanding and convictions about Scripture and what my church holds. I was actually recruited to answer questions on behalf of my church rather than having any particularly keen interest in doing so. My interest so far as apologetics goes, is not any one denominational or historical tradition but rather what Lewis would have called "mere" Christianity.

And it is a task that I fulfilled to the best of my ability as God gave me competence, not a subject for which I will lend a great deal of information, you understand. I have been doing it more and less over the last three or four years. I do it less now because after ten years of immersing myself in theology I got a little burned out. I still try to read a book by Bishop Wright or Bauckham, for instance, but I'm taking a break from heavy-duty academic theological study for the time being.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

sermons and some reflections.

I'm at a weird spot in my life. I generally avoid writing things that I consider personal but I had a few epiphanies recently. One is that it's very easy to be like the Israelites. God can bail me out of huge, disastrous stuff but I can still not trust Him to protect me in all the little things in life. And I don't really trust the Lord to keep the people I love most safe, either.

Which is why, mysteriously, I felt very convicted remembering the words of Christ "In this world you will have tribulations, but take courage, for I have overcome the world." Christ went to the Cross after asking the Father that it would pass from Him, that He would be spared. Christ implored the Father to, if possible, protect Him from having to go to the Cross. Yet Jesus went anyway, willingly, and learned obedience through what He suffered.

This week a friend of mine preached a sermon. I really only got to hear half the sermon but it still hit me in the gut. He was talking about the Enemy and about the necessity of spiritual warfare, how the Enemy can accuse and condemn and has a variety of weapons at his disposal. This last week I had been reading 2 Corinthians and realized that Paul describes how sorrow is able to play a part in the Enemy's schemes. If the Corinthians do not extend forgiveness and fellowship to the one who sinned against them it, somehow, plays into the schemes of the Enemy, which was why Paul urged them to restore friendship and relationship to the sinner as soon as possible.

Sometimes it can be very easy to overlook how the Enemy can use things like that. Paul urged the Corinthians not just to forgive but to demonstrate that forgiveness so that the person would not be broken by excessive sorrow. It seems to refer to the immoral man referred to in 1 Corinthians. At any rate ...

I realized over the weekend that by living with the assumption that for all the little things I have to protect myself because God obviously won't do it that I had let myself get suckered.

And I realized with no small amount of sadness that my friend's sermon was awesome in precisely the way that another pastor's sermons at the same church basically suck right now. The first pastor spoke to his congregation as someone who walks with them, meets with them, opens up the church on a holiday weekend to let people come by and hang out, meets with them to settle personal conflicts and acknowledges both his own weakness and the weaknesses and strengths of his flock. The other pastor, I don't know. I think he loves the church in his own way but I sometimes wonder if Zossima might say he loves his idea of the church more than the actual church itself. It's not that he doesn't love the church by any means, but I just wonder sometimes if he loves his idea of what his church should be more than the actual church Jesus has given him to shepherd.

I hope that's not how it's working because if that's the case it is a potentially dangerous place to be. A person can make an idol of what they expect from a relationship that destroys the very relationship they idolize. I have found that by idolizing relationships and treating them as the basis from which to understand that I am right with God, or as a way to hear from God when I don't think the Lord will lead me personally, that I do immense damage to those relationships. God can and will take away all those relationships from me one day.

By analogy, I hope that what is not happening is a case where by putting on a pedastal the dream of where the church in particular should go that a pastor isn't losing the love that initially spurred him to make sacrifices for Christ, not the local church. I don't want my pastor to make sacrifices for a church. The Church is a whore who needs to be redeemed by Christ. Sacrifices made for the Church/church are not necessarily sacrifices made for Christ if the sacrifices are made so that the church will go where the pastor wants her to go. That would be like dating the church, even as a pastor, which is hard to describe. My prayer is that that is not what will continue to happen at the church I call home if it even is happening now.

A pastor who preaches to his flesh and blood flock, the flock that he can eat with, speak with, pray with, laugh with, that's a pastor I can trust because I can expose my heart to that person because that person exposes his heart to me. It doesn't mean we're best buddies or anything but the one who is the greatest among us in Christ is the one who is the servant of all. Sacrificing yourself for Christ and considering others as better than yourself is hard, impossible without the help of the Spirit. I've seen it happen and it has touched me deeply, which is why I admit to missing it. There are things I used to see that I don't see anymore.

I don't write any of this because I think I ought to have any role of prominence in any church. I don't want to be a leader in any church of any kind except by accident. In fact I have actively avoided having leadership roles because I'm obviously not cut out for it. If any one is reading this and takes that as evidence that I'm avoiding God's call, let me assure, I'm not. I don't get up in the morning and think to myself, "Woe is me if I don't preach the Gospel". I get up in the morning wondering if work is going to be boring or too interesting, wonder if maybe today I'm going to have a breakthrough working out counterpoint on some piece, if maybe this weekend I'll get to hang out with friends I haven't seen in a few weeks or maybe a few years; about which friends have had babies recently, or if I might ever work up the nerve to go on a date or if it would even be worth the trouble.

I don't really feel the least bit prompted by God to leave where I'm at but I'm seriously reassessing the nature of how I am to stay. I come from a Pentecostal background originally, and I just have some reservations about what sometimes feel like attempts to bureaucratically channel the Holy Spirit into institutions for the sake of quality control. The Spirit resists that kind of adminstrative delegation.

It's just weird to find myself thinking that I hear pastor A preach and it cuts through me like a hot knife through butter and I hear pastor B preach and ... well, nothing. There's nothing wrong with the sermons except that for some inexplicable reason the juice isn't there. It's like a perfectly created electrical socket that just seems to have no juice in it anymore and I can't for the life of me explain why. Two years ago this situation simply didn't exist and I don't get what happened. I miss preacher B preaching the way he used to. His sermons were from the biblical text and about the biblical text, not about his life and his kids and where he sees the church going. Preacher A (perhaps only because he's just doing what he needs to do where he's at) is blowing me away. I don't think this means preacher A should have preacher B's job. That's the LAST thing I want. But I admit that I wish preacher B was a little bit more like preacher A. At some point if you aren't living and working with the people in the flock, not just your leadership team, you lose sight of the service to which you are called. You can't wash the feet of someone who lives in a different neighborhood, can you?

I have to admit I'm afraid that a pastor who I still have a lot of respect for may be seduced by book deals into preaching book deals more than to his actual congregation. The scope of the Church is the world but the scope of a bishop is in a very specific place. The world and nation are not the pulpit for anyone for long. Legendary pastors became legendary in a time and place.

I really, really hope I'm wrong but I can't shake this sense of worry. I have blogged about it eliptically but now I'm at a point where I feel less inclined to speak around the subject. If my church is going through a situation where members are considered not members until such time as their membership contract gets renewed then I feel weird about that, especially since the contract is labeled a "covenant". Do covenants have changing terms that are subject to annual renewal? That concerns me. Do covenants have terms that get dropped out so that the one who requires the covenant be signed no longer promises to do things he once did?

Did Yahweh ever tell the Israelites they had to renew their covenant with Him? Yeah, I think so, in a rather broad way, or He said He would renew the covenant Himself and give them obedient hearts. Did He say that when they renewed this covenant that any of the previous promises were revoked or omitted? Well, no, if anything the Lord ADDS to the promises and amplifies them.

See, preacher B is almost unrecognizable as the one who blew me away with some sermons back in 2005. I don't know what happened. Maybe someone would suggest the problem is me and I'm willing to say that maybe they're right but that still doesn't explain this weirdly pervasive feeling I have that something is missing. Maybe preacher B just needs to take a break for a while and let the rest of the pastors in the alphabet do some preaching and teaching. It's not like preacher B was any good at first. He sucked. He got better as he waded into the deep end of the pool and the Lord saw fit to use him. Thing is, that's potentially equally true with the rest of the preachers in the alphabet, unless there's some pastor who is simply not fit to teach from the pulpit and if that were the case I don't know why that person is even a pastor. Pastors have administrative roles but I never got the impression it was a desk job.

Equipping the saints for ministry involves a lot of crap. Not least it involves going out and being with the saints. If you equip the saints who equip the saints I can see how that works at some kind of denominational/hierarchical level but then it seems to make the most sense, Scripturally, to say that Paul trains the local elders who then train the local congregants. Paul did not stick around longer than a year or so.

Preacher B has at various times described himself as being a small 'a' apostle, a church planter. If that's his gift then perhaps he needs to revisit that because it may be the role he has had as a church planter means he needs to train more church planters and let the shepherds in the church take a more prominent role in leading the flock. That could be a potentially amazing thing to do because the few sermons I've heard from the other preachers in the alphabet are pretty amazing whle preacher B's sermons feel weirdly phoned in, well researched but at a strange remove that I'm not sensing in the sermons from the rest of the alphabet. Maybe he's so much the church planter that he needs to recognize that he's not a shepherd. Maybe he does and that's why the structure is in place ... but the shepherds seem to have a much clearer grasp of their own flock and the man who sows sows in the hope that he will eat. If a pastor does the sacrificing to serve the church maybe that pastor deserves to preach a little more than the person who trained that pastor.

I'm worried that without his realizing it pastor B has somehow created the very distance between leaders and led that he used to speak against in a sermon series four or five years ago.

What if trying to hold on to his old role as much as possible is potentially quenching the Spirit? I don't ask this because I know the answer but because I can't avoid the observation that something is missing and what's missing may not be a sign that this man has lost the presence of the Lord's work in his life but may be resisting the prompting of the Lord for him to move in a new direction the implications of which he may not yet be comfortable with. I'm friends with at least one person who found he was resisting the direction the Lord wanted him to go, it is not impossible that a person may be used to path A when the Lord prompts path B and the person is still clinging to things from path A without realizing that the gifts of God are given to build up the body and that sometimes a gift comes and goes based on that work that only the Spirit can accomplish.

I don't know, but I can't ignore the possibility of these things when I pray for the future of the church I still consider to be my home. Even if I were asked to leave I wouldn't leave and I can't imagine why I would be asked to leave. But I am also not sure about the way people are enjoined to stay.

I'll put it this way, if I keep writing a check to support the local branch I don't know why they'd refuse my money. If I'm not a member until I sign up again what can they do about it? What necessitates that attitude to begin with? Clearly that is not the approach that is being publicized about the leaders themselves.

The thing I'm contemplating is should I sign up on this variable geometry renewable "covenant" when I find it harder and harder to see it as biblically defensible even though I couldn't be more persuaded the Lord wants me to be exactly where I am? No one would sign on for a marriage license that changes every few years and suddenly drops out something like sex or "in sickness and in health", would they? If pastors covenant one year to go through the whole counsel of Scripture and a few years later they haven't done it should they then change the terms of the contract or work to fulfill the old term? If pastors covenant one year to help members in their time of need and then omit that from the new covenant that they ask people to sign is that because the promise is tacit?

If a covenant is a unilateral thing where the one with the higher position of authority lays out the terms the perhaps (I say this with a great deal of trepidation) it means the term "covenant" applies because the church that requires the signing of the covenant as a covenant and not a contract is in some sense appropriating biblical language for the force of authority without having the infinite power, wisdom, and love, to establish that covenant as a mandate.

Years ago I read The Cost of Discipleship and was challenged by it. Maybe I am now at a point where the Lord is setting a challenge before me. Some things have happened in the last year where in order to follow where the Lord seemed to be leading me I had to ignore the advice given to me by some pastors and follow very closely the advice given by another pastor. All these pastors were/are at this church in the last year. Someone once proposed that spiritual maturity means discerning when the pastor is wrong and acting contrary to what said pastor advises. Well, uh, I sure got a lot of practice in that in the last year, then, because I got some advice from pastors that was positively damaging. I don't hold it against them personally. They really thought they were giving the best possible advice for the situation. However, I will agree with the pastor who apologized about that situation for himself and them that, yeah, the ball got dropped badly.

That's what's sticking with me lately. A pastor who can confess to me that he's sinned against me and that the pastors as a group have let me and others down and works toward remedying that, that's a pastor I can support with my mind, heart, and checkbook because that's a pastor who models Christ and seeks Christ. It's tougher for me to have that confidence if a pastor never sees me, has no real interest in spending time with me. It's not because I really want to spend time with that pastor at all, really, it's more the observation that the fellowship that only comes through the Spirit binding us together is less likely to happen if said pastor is at such a remove from the flock that he functions more like a denominational leader than an actual pastor. And I'm not knocking denominational leaders at all.

But it would be a problem, to use a worn-out analogy of military conflict, if a general determines that the airplanes must get sent out to provide air support but is not talking to the generals and field marshalls out on the ground. The lead general can send out bomber squadrons at miles up in the sky when what is needed is close air support.

The higher and more numerous the bombs the less likely they are to hit the targets that matter out in the actual field of battle. The possibility of friendly fire becomes more and more impossible to avoid. Strategic bombing is useless by itself. Tactical bombing is, to strain the metaphor, more potent. If you're flying fifteen miles up in the sky and are carpet bombing the whole area the chance that you'll take out the enemy's strongholds are basically nil. You're not dropping the bombs where the enemy is encamped.

Why do I mention this? Well, let me transition into the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke. Where is Jesus' first recorded exorcism in those gospels? In a synagogue! The synagogue was where His people met to worship and yet there was a guy there who had a demon. Did anyone notice this before? It doesn't seem like it because the whole crowd is stunned by what happened. How long was this demoniac attending the synagogue before Jesus came? Why? Was he a slave to some sin? We can't even really answer that question.

More awkward yet, we can't answer the question of what it means in our own time. There may be people in the middle of a church whom the Enemy has made instruments, not because of any will that they have but simply because the Enemy is able to deceive, steal, kill, and destroy. Only Christ can crush the Enemy. Jesus called Peter Satan, the adversary. It's possible for someone to be sealed and set apart for the kingdom of God and for Jesus Himself to tell that person, "Get behind me Satan. You are thinking the thoughts of men and not of God." Peter refused to accept that Christ came to die and possibly thought Jesus had come to conquer. And Jesus DID come to conquer but not through the means expected.

Jesus had many followers who wanted Him to make peace by crushing all His enemies. Jesus did establish peace by willingly submitting to being crushed by His enemies. This is as mysterous as it is impossible to overstate, Jesus obtained victory through a defeat and He made peace by submitting to the Cross and bearing the curse upon Himself and bearing our iniquity. How can we possibly emulate that example? How can we imitate Christ in those ways here? If I were to seek victory and vindication first and not the path of humility then wouldn't I be turning away from the essence of what Jesus taught? Seems that way but even I can't quite explain why.

When the kingdom of Israel divided God did not forsake them even after they had forsaken each other and turned to idols, turned to reimaginging Yahweh as they saw fit rather than acknowledge Him as God over both of them. I feel like I have seen a microcosm of that. Not everyone or even most people necessarily take that view but that any do is symptomatic. A little leaven leavens the whole loaf, so to speak.

So, this is just me pondering some things. I'm surprised that God used one sermon to cut through some things I had never considered before and revealed to me how I unwittingly cooperated with the Enemy, and the other sermon, to be honest I don't even remember anything about it except that it happened. It didn't used to be that way. I've got enough residual Pentecostal in me that the only way I know how to explain it (and it's at a purely emotional level) is that it just feels like the annointing has gone. That's the only way I know how to describe it. I think it can and will come back but that's not because of any confidence I have in any pastor but because Christ loves His Church and the little churches that are part of it. The gates of Hell will not prevail against it but as Jesus' own ministry attests, sometimes, without any accounting for it even in Scripture itself, someone ends up in the synagogue who has a demon and belongs to Christ who needs to be set free. I'm not even sure why I have written all this but that's what blogs are handy for and why prefer to speak in generalities because the people who know me already know what I'm talking about.

I am not interested in leaving the place I consider home and there are several people for hwom I have a deeper respect and trust and love than I ever had previously. And yet I have to admit that I feel deeply ambivalent about the place even though I do not believe for a moment the Lord is leading me to leave. I can't shake the queasy feeling that the Enemy has done some kind of weird end run around us and split up a defensive line that shouldn't have been broken up. I feel as though both sides are tempted to not discern the body of Christ and thereby eat and drink judgment upon themselves. I hope that is just my own worry and not what is possibly happening. In any event, I will keep praying for the church I consider, still, to be my home church.

My hope is to speak, where I can, in defense of Christ, not His Church. If I defend the Church I am defending that which Christ is still redeeming and bears the mystery of the Gospel but must be continually transformed by it. The Head redeems the Body, the Body does not redeem the Head. In the same way my desire is to speak in defense of Christ not my church. If I speak in defense of my church then I am speaking in defense of men and women who are sinners who may need to repent, where ever they may be. On the other hand, if we all speak up for Christ and Christ alone and not ourselves, if we set aside any sense of honor or dignity we might cherish for ourselves and reflect Christ then we can be ambassadors.

Well, uh, it's obviously a rambling late-night blog entry.

an addendum to my earlier comment that Jesus was crucified by the vote of a bipartisan committee

Jesus was also crucified by single-issue voters.

okay, this is just mean but I like this one.

You can probably figure out where this photo and caption came from without my telling you.