The Strange Words of Jesus

Some meditative thoughts following my daily Bible reading for today –

If you attempt to keep up with modern trends in American Christianity (as I feebly do), you are aware that today there is a great deal of talk about being spiritual, but not necessarily religious. (This distinction screams for a post on definitions of words, but that will have to wait for another day). What I want to point out is that the very use of the term “spiritual” as is used in today’s vernacular is so utterly opposite of what Jesus demanded. You see, today we can be “spiritual” and not give up anything – in fact, being spiritual means that we get to have, and get, and get, and get, and get. Being spiritual means we are healthy, wealthy, and wise, and any sign of infirmity of mind, body, or bank account means that we are just not spiritual enough. There is just far too much “J” in this concept, and that “J” stands for Joel Osteen and not Jesus.

Just look at how the word is understood: churches that grow are spiritual, churches that stay the same (or, heaven forbid, shrink) are worldly. Athletes that win the Super Bowl are spiritual, athletes that are perennial cellar dwellers are worldly. Preachers that “grow” churches are spiritual, preachers that labor in small, nondescript congregations are worldly. Yikes! – Jeremiah was the poster child of worldly failure!

Now, understand – I am not promoting apathy. Some churches that shrink do so because they are worldly. Not every athlete on a losing team is spiritual. And some preachers are failures because they have sold their soul to the world, and congregations can sniff that out.

But I am only too aware of congregations who grow by leaps and bounds because of the star status of their preacher, not because of spiritual health. I am only too aware that some athletic teams win because their system is built on cheating and rigging the game, not on the depth of their spiritual acumen. Some preachers climb the ecclesial ladder by kissing feet – not by washing them.

Three times in Luke 14:25-33 Jesus specifically said that certain people could not be his disciples. Read the passage – certain people could not be his disciples! People who love fame and popularity, people who refuse to walk in the shadow of their own death, people who cannot renounce their own importance – these people cannot become, or remain, disciples of Jesus.

There are all kinds of markers for what Americans consider to be a life of spirituality. Strangely, I see very few of them consistent with what Jesus considered to be markers of spirituality.

It just seems like every day I want to climb the ecclesial ladder. Every day I want someone to recognize my brilliance, my importance. Every day I want to have someone say – “wow, look at him – he must be spiritual because of what he has.” And, virtually without fail, I open my Bible and I read where God says, “Argh, you have it all wrong again! You climb higher by descending lower. Listen to my Son.”

I want to be spiritual in my quest to be a disciple, but I hope that no one thinks that I am spiritual. Because, I think that if someone thinks that I’m spiritual, I have probably become an enemy of the one who is my master.

What Was It Like In A.D. 65?

I wonder what it was like in Jerusalem in A.D. 65. Approximately 30 years earlier the wandering Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth had prophesied that one day the walls of the Temple would be torn down. Thirty years is a long time for most memories. Besides, the world in 65 was a lot different than it was in 30.

I just wonder – what was it like? We all know what it must have looked like beginning in 66. The Roman legions started marching, the war machinery started building up – those who had any common political sense knew then that the gig was up. Hilltops like Masada started looking a lot more attractive for a lot of people. But what must it have been like for the common ordinary citizen – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker?

Were there a lot of messiahs running around – demagogues with perfectly coifed hair spouting off about the “fake news” of the Roman threat? Were the papers full of stories about leading Temple administrators being involved in sexual misconduct cases? Were the talk shows saturated with accusations and counter-accusations of the local gymnastic games being rigged by the Greek Games Commissioner?

I just wonder if the average Joseph sitting down with his morning paper had any inkling of what was just over the horizon. Looking back through the lens of almost 2,000 years of history it seems like it had to have been crystal clear what was about to take place. Occupying forces simply do not like perpetual unrest, rebellion. They want peace – or, maybe not so much peace, but the absolute absence of armed resistance.

I wonder also about the faithful Jew become Christian – the follower of the wandering Rabbi. He (and she) knew of the prophecy, but so much time had passed. Babies had been born, children had been raised, parents had been buried. The walls were still standing. In 65 the Romans might have been close (they were always close), but the tanks and artillery pieces were still not in position. Yet. Did they know? Could they see? Jesus had spoken. They believed. But in 65, did they really know?

One of the key words in the latter portions of the gospel accounts is watch. Jesus said the end is coming, be alert. Watch. He even gave some pretty good hints as to when the Temple would be destroyed. He did not give a time-line, but enough information so that it would not catch the faithful by complete surprise. The rooster always crows a little before dawn.

I just wonder today as I see the world seemingly coming unraveled at the seams – what is just over the horizon? Is 2018 the same as 65? Did not Jesus tell his faithful that, while it might be a while, the end was surely coming? There were many who heard, and remembered, and stayed alert and watched. I think they were ready in 65. I don’t think everyone was beguiled by the perfectly coifed demagogue spouting off about fake news. I don’t think everyone was distracted by all the sordid stories of back-room dalliances and athletic field conspiracies.

Just thinking out loud here, but what was it like in Jerusalem in A.D. 65?

Some Thoughts on the Churches of Christ: A Closer Look

I am both thrilled and scared by the announcement that the Christian Chronicle, a newspaper affiliated with the Churches of Christ, will present a series of articles in 2018 reporting on both statistical and anecdotal snapshots of where the congregations associated with this branch of the American Restoration Movement now stand. Thrilled, because I am vitally concerned about this movement. Scared, because of what I see personally and of what I have experienced in my past. To assist them in this series the authors have prepared a survey they hope members of the Churches of Christ will complete (survey can be found on the Christian Chronicle website). I am a little dubious of the results, as (1) there is no guarantee that the respondents are genuinely members of the church (unless the authors vet every single response) and (2) it is only the individuals on the most extreme ends of a spectrum that respond to such surveys. In other words, only those who are the most angry or the most enamored with the Churches of Christ are likely to respond. Maybe I am too pessimistic – I look forward to the results in the genuine hope that I am wrong.

Because I seem to be genetically incapable of briefly summarizing any of my thoughts about the  church, here is my closer look at the Churches of Christ leading into 2018.

My greatest fear is that, even with the penetrating kind of reporting that the Chronicle routinely presents, only the surface issues are going to be identified and debated ad nauseam. I fear that the discussion will degenerate into a class of 12 year old boys shooting spit balls at each other and disguising the whole fiasco as a debate of deep spiritual import.

Having recently completed my Doctor of Ministry degree on a subject very closely related to this question, I feel at least somewhat qualified to speak here. There have been a number of excellent studies produced by scholars within the Churches of Christ (from all positions) that have explored in-depth the questions such as the Chronicle is raising. Perhaps the most ground-breaking was David Edwin Harrell’s work in the 1960s, but many have followed in his footsteps and have done a masterful job of examining both societal and theological issues within the movement.

My point of departure in addressing our future is this: it is absolutely critical that we jointly and collectively admit and appreciate our history.

I see, on one end of the divide that currently afflicts us, in those who identify (or can be identified) as “progressives” or “change agents,” an almost vitriolic attack against the beginnings of the Restoration Movement. They view such men as Barton W. Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, David Lipscomb, and others as naive, theological Lilliputians whose writings should be abandoned to the dustbins of history. The ridicule and scorn heaped upon the early 19th century restorers is hardly disguised, and is quite frankly embarrassing.

No less embarrassing, however, is the outright rejection of our history by those who are on the extreme opposite of the theological spectrum. According to the most conservative (or “reactionary”) members, we simply do not have a human history. We are the church of AD 33, no less and no more. It is almost (if not certainly) like 1900 + years of human – and church –  history never happened.

The situation we find ourselves in is this: these mortal opponents, who cannot stand the sight of each other, sit perched on the same flimsy limb that they are both furiously sawing in order to cut each other off. I believe a majority – or at least a significant minority – members of the Churches of Christ are left simply bewildered. They see and hear all the polemic being hurled from one side to the other, but all they want is a place to worship in peace and security. They do not want to blow the church up – but they equally do not want to retreat into some fortified bunker where there is no light from the sun and no fresh air to breathe.

The one thing that I feel in my bones is that the middle of the church is being squeezed by both ends and it is increasingly difficult to identify oneself as simply a member of the church of Christ (little “c”).

If you are wondering, yes, I have some ideas about the origins of our current situation, and even some tentative suggestions about how to move forward. I am, after all, a preacher – and preachers have never been short of opinions and suggestions.

At the end of this already too-long post I would offer this little tidbit: whatever we do, we must once again look to the core of what Jesus wanted his  church to look like (a really good start would be John 13-17). If we can begin there, and somehow learn to acknowledge and appreciate our very human and corporeal history, maybe we have a chance to speak to our culture. If not, I do not have much hope that the vision of Stone, Campbell, Scott and others will survive another generation.

Thanks for reading, and as always, let us aspire to ascend lower.

Disruption, Disappointment, Disilusionment – December

For followers of this blog – and especially for those who knew of and followed my previous blog – the past few months have been uncommonly quiet for me. It’s not that I have not wanted to write, its just that when I get an idea that seems to be important, and when I sit down to explore that idea, it just all seems to vanish. That which seemed so valuable and so worthy of a blog post seems to become so trivial. I guess I should say the same thing about other blogs that I read. I come across a catchy title, but by about the third or fourth paragraph I think, “And I wasted the past few minutes of my life on THIS?”

2017 has been an especially unkind year for me and my family: three hospital stays, two surgeries, CT scans, PET scans, more doctor visits than you can count, enough physical therapy to rehabilitate a football team. Through it all we have been extraordinarily blessed by family and friends. But it has been a brutal year, especially that last 4 months.

Emotionally and spiritually the last few months have taken their toll on me as well. I guess I am at that place in life where so many men (and maybe women do too, I don’t know) ask themselves about what they have accomplished and what meaning their life has, and what difference they have made. Looking back I have not accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, I have not been where I wanted to go, and I am not now fulfilling the role that I feel I was most gifted and called to do. It is all so singularly depressing.

Someone once described life as the contents of three buckets. When you are young you have a bucket full of dreams, and two empty buckets – one for precious memories of dreams accomplished and one for the regrets concerning those dreams that go unfulfilled. The goal is as the dream bucket gets emptied, for the precious memories to be full, and the regret bucket to stay empty.

I now realize that I have many, many dreams that I will never achieve. One reason for that is that when I was young I could REALLY dream up some doozies. Another reason is that as I get older I realize that many of the dreams just really were not all that important, and so technically while the broken dream goes into the regret bucket, it really does not fill it up that much.

My hope is that in January I can return to writing in this blog again. I hope I will have something more constructive to set forth in this space,  and I really do not want my readers to feel like they have wasted any precious time reading what I do offer. I truly appreciate all the “likes” and “follows,” and I will do my best to present thoughts worthy of your consideration.

Until that time, my prayer is that all of us will continue to climb higher by descending lower. I pray we will learn the message of John 13 – there is nobility in humility and we reign by serving.

Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, and may you and yours have the best and most prosperous of New Years.