Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Our Presidential People Problem

How important is picking a president? It all depends on who you are:

1. For some people, picking a president is a moral mission to get the right ethical enforcer in the White House. Because the president is right, the nation will be right.

2. For some people, it is a money matter. Their puppet for president is going to do things that will put more money in their pocket (and/or take less out through taxes).

3. For too many people, it is a tribal thing. Because my family/coworkers/church/neighbors vote elephant or donkey, so do I. How else do you explain the ubiquitous, mindless signs and bumper stickers? They seem to me to be tribal markings to keep people in line by saying, "Stick with the group!"

Followers of Jesus should not be found in any of these trance-like pack of zombies. We obey a King, and "our citizenship is in heaven." Our savior-king is coming from there, not from some November ballot (Philippians 2:20).

But here is what I lament: why do so many thoughtful, churched, trained Christians follow the pack instead of Jesus? There is only one explanation that makes sense to me anymore. It is this. Their thoughts, churches and training have been overrun by culture, and they no longer think the thoughts of the Holy One, nor do they read His Book. When they do, the god of this age has blinded their eyes from seeing what is so clearly written. How else do we explain how materialism has colonized church leaders and church priorities? How else do we explain moral superiority when the Good Book teaches us the humility and equalization of our sinful selves? "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God"--we all need a savior.

If your hope is in keeping or changing Obama, you are an idolator. In the days of the Hebrew prophet Hosea, the people were pining for human solutions and visible answers and tangible gods they could trust in. Idolatry. That's what Hosea called it. Thats what it was. Thats what it is.

But God gave Hosea a crystal-ball picture of the solution to the plight of his countrymenand ours. There will come a time when we find ourselves leaderless and rudderless. But hear this. This is not a part of the problem. This is the beginning of God's solution (Hosea 3:4). Because, as a result of our disillusionment, we will turn our hearts again to our real homeland, and find our security and prosperity there: "In the last days they will turn in fear to the Lord, and he will bless them" (verse 5).

Our hope is in heaven alone. If Jesus doesn't show up, we are lost in space.

"There are Christians in Myanmar, they meet underground. In Syria, they're killed when they're found. And in Iran the Christians meet up in the hills because it's not safe in the town. So I ask you America where do you stand? Your people are starving, they're killed and their raped, and they're dying in jail cells, so what are your plans? I'm not talking to congress or you politicians, or SuperPacs, lobbyists, or Grover Norquist. I'm addressing this thought to the church" (adapted from Brother Larry)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

the end of the world after party

So, my friend Joey pointed out to me the billboard on a major road in Orlando advertising the end of the world on May 21. I went to the website, and it URL proclaims its unbiblical claim: Jesus is coming May 21 AND we can know it for sure (www.wecanknow.com). Never mind that Jesus said, "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Matthew 24:36).

So, I loved Stoney's counter billboard. You are all invited for lunch--my treat.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Faithful obedience or consistent theology?

I have listened to the followers of a lot of -isms and -ics in my 35 years as a follower of Jesus. CharismatIC, WesleyanISM, CalvinISM, CatholicISM, EvangelicalISM, House-churchianity, and so on. I would like to share something that I have observed, and I share it in hope to encourage someone, somewhere to focus in on the simpler, more faithful life of following Christ, living under the kingship of the Lord Jesus.

These -ics and -isms have one thing in common: they develop a system of thought that elevates consistency with itself above conformity to Christ’s commands, and reads Scripture in light of its system. Conservative or liberal doesn’t make a difference. In each case, the focus is on understanding God (at its best), or feeling no cognitive tension (understandable human drive), or intellectual pride in one’s superior system (at its most tribal worst).

So what’s wrong with seeking to understand God, that is, pursue a systematic theology? At least two things: (1) On the surface, it is hubris expressing itself. Really? Understand God? The pot comprehending the Potter? The finite grasping the infinite? We do not really “see as through a glass darkly” because of our broken minds and world? (2) More crippling for us as Christians is this: in my observation, those who primarily focus on understanding God and on developing a consistent, cognitive system about God do not realize how that actually works against standing-under the direction of the Lord, submitting and following regardless of ability to conceptualize or rationalize the thing He commands to be done. The focus on understanding means that, across the board, there is a point where the system is held above the Lord.

An example. If your ic or ism teaches you that grace is unconditional (sounds right, doesn’t it?), that means that being forgiven by God has no conditions at all. Freely given, freely received. Now, there is a true aspect of that (that is, grace is always a gift and never earned), but I have heard unconditionalists (made up word) reject the clear teaching of Jesus because of their system. If I say to them, even though it is a gift, forgiveness IS conditional, according to Jesus. I have had them say “nuh uh.” So then I just read to them what Jesus said. At the end of the Lord’s teaching on how to pray in Matthew 6 (the Lord’s Prayer, as it is called) Jesus takes pains to explain only this part of the prayer: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). Pretty clear. And, to underline its importance, it is the punch line of his extended teaching on forgiveness in Matthew 18: “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:34-35).

Ah, you say, well that is just because they don’t understand/articulate clearly. If they had MY -ism, they wouldn’t be so -ic-ky. (Couldn’t resist the pun, sorry). This is the steam for so much denominationalsm and the reason for existence for so many Christian colleges, seminaries and Bible schools. “If you can teach ‘em right, they’ll be right and prevail over wrong.” These institutions have trained us to believe we need educated leaders to be healthy. That tree has not borne fruit in keeping with the kingdom. The Bible teaches us to follow leaders who are faithful, that is, those who consistently obey Jesus over a long time. It says nothing about needing a college education. Jesus commanded us to “teach them to obey all that I have commanded.” Nowhere does He say, “Teach them to understand everything in the Bible, or about God.”

We are in the wilderness, Oh church. We don’t need any more educated fools. We need wise followers who know the path by heart and by practice.

Paul put it this way: Knowledge makes arrogant; love edifies. The pursuit of knowledge and understanding actually results in holding your head above the commands, and the result is pride and not Christlikeness. Instead, we must begin with the basic commitment: if your ideas don’t fit with Scripture, too bad for your ideas.

That is the consistent speck I have observed in others’ eyes, peering past the log in my own eye. But as a “we,” as the church of Jesus, we sadly present to the world a strangely consistent phenomenon with our bumper stickers, politics and priorities: we have elevated something above following His every command and hanging on His every word, and we have pushed out love as the greatest thing. At our best, we have been educated out of our obedience. At our worst, we appear to be controlled by the “flesh,” the self-will, through our self-deceived intellectual hubris. The world sees the log we display, and so yawns when we say what we see.

A hopeful alternative. This, too, I have observed: those who focus on standing-under the Lordship of Jesus by doing and teaching to do all He commands end up understanding way more about the Bible than those whose mantra is a paralytic-analytic of “if and only if and when I understand, will I radically follow and fanatically obey my Lord.”

Thursday, January 20, 2011

tentmaking today

“Tent-making” is the missionary concept that comes from the apostle Paul’s practice of supporting himself by working with his own hands. He was probably a leather worker (what tents were usually made from), whose biggest customer was the Roman military (the greatest user of tents throughout the Empire), that meant he could get work anywhere. He undoubtedly learned this skill as a Pharisee, since it was the common practice for Pharisees to learn a trade and the law at the same time. They were “lay lawyers” of biblical law. But, Paul made this his practice and example for CHRISTIAN reasons all the way through to the very end of his third and final missionary journey:

“You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:34-35)

Paul, in this final meeting with the Ephesian elders, connected self-support to the highest Christian calling of loving care for the weak, and the blessing of giving (which, in this citation, is linked to self-support, not giving financial offerings!). In this basic practice, Paul identifies with most Christians everywhere who have to work to feed themselves and fund their witness to their friends, neighbors and co-workers.

The question for this post is this: According to Paul’s teaching and example, what is the place of the practice of self-support for CHRISTIAN ministries today? Tent-making is a strategy that has no good press in the church-as-we-know-it. Tent-making is what second-rate ministers do so they can do their “real” ministry on Sunday, or what the missionaries do until they get enough support to be a “full time missionary.” On the one hand, a lot of the feeling we have about tent-making comes from the current model of leader as CEO (and therefore powerful, in control and well-financed). Tent-makers are powerless, without control and poorly financed and so—we somehow feel—they must be on Plan B for those not quite good enough to be a “real” leader. On the other hand, ask any tent-maker. It can really suck. We struggle with feelings of shame (“How come more people don’t support me?”). We struggle with feelings of self-pity (“I’m so tired. If only I had financial support, I could devote my full time to ministry!”). We struggle with feelings of inadequacy, since we are not fully-funded like “real” ministers and “valuable” ministries.

For the remainder of this post I will assume that just because we are used to things being done a certain way does not make that way the best way to do them. I will assume that shame may be well part of God’s plan for authentic ministry, as God puts His son’s shame on the cross at the center of that plan, and Paul affirms again and again the necessity for apostolic leaders to experience shame and humiliation (“working with hands” would be considered shameful for the high society in his day; 1 Corinthians 4; 2 Corinthians 4). I will assume that the Scriptural pattern is more important that our contemporary patterns or long-term traditions or “common sense.”

In 1 Thessalonians 1:9, Paul said he sweat and bled “not to be a burden.” This was not only HIS missionary strategy, he makes it theirs: “Work with your hands so that you win the respect of outsiders!” (1 Thess 4:11). By the time of his second letter to them, some of them had come up with “spiritual” reasons why they shouldn’t have to work, and he makes his own practice of self-support the ethical foundation of his charge to them: if THEY won’t work (like Paul), don’t give them food (2 Thess 3:6-10).

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul argues from his practice of self-support as an example of why the Corinthians should not use their right/freedom to eat idol meat (see 1 Corinthians 8—10). He bends over backwards to demonstrate why he should be financially supported, but only to make it clear: “I have not made use of that right, and neither should you make use of your ‘right’ to eat idol meat.” It is very poignant that Paul calls self-support his right/freedom/authority (he uses the word exousia which can be translated as either right, freedom or authority). He says this after presenting many reasons why Christian workers and their spouses should be supported in their missionary journeys (I may be wrong, but I think 9:5 specifically makes this passage not about stationed or stationary “professional” ministry). He says he would rather die than have anyone deprive him of this “boast” by financially supporting him (1 Cor 9:15—in typical Pauline irony, he calls a practice that would bring him shame in Corinth something to boast about). Paul calls it a “reward” to support himself (again, rich in irony for those who might think “paid ministry” is “real” ministry). His self-support is an exousia, a source of freedom and authority to live, decide, move and speak as God leads and provides, and not to wait for the approval of others. For those of us who have followed his pattern, we learn there is great freedom and authority to speak when we are not financially beholden to someone else, worrying about what will happen to our livelihood if we address needed issues. Paul, I think, envisioned that this was how we would keep a prophetic-apostolic edge on the church’s proclamation.

Paul’s practice of self-support was essential to blessed mission work he lived. His tent-making took him to the center of the market place where women, slaves, Cynic philosophers, and all sorts of “normal” people spent their time. He had a natural hearing because he was incarnational like Jesus, walking among those he was sent to speak to. Paul didn’t work in the market place so he could merely speak in the synagogue on the weekend. Paul’s tent-making took him to the center of the mission target God gave him that day (just like getting thrown in jail took him to the Philippian jailer). His pattern was apostolic, mobile and multipliable. He could focus on discipling those who were faithful and not worry about what was “fundable.” Geography is mission, is it not? Where does God have me? THIS is where God wants me to be in mission, whether in jail or in the center of the market place.

Some of you reading this may have significant “noise” that may drown out what I am saying here. Many people will say that “church ministry” needs to be paid so the CEO can speak in the worship event on Sunday and run the organization throughout the week. Of course, this reflects our tragically consistent misconception of what “church,” “ministry” and “worship” are. We weaken the fiber of the Body of Christ when we continue the false teaching that “worship” means attending a lecture/concert each week. Paul’s pattern is much closer: true worship is a whole life, one’s whole self, one’s every waking moment and activity (including the work-a-day stuff) offered up to God (Romans 12:1ff). It is certainly how Paul understood his own “offering” of working to support himself (Acts 20:34-35).

That is all to say that I think apostles* and tent-making are still God’s main, blessed missionary strategy in church-as-God-wants-it, and mission-as-God-wants-it. The main problem we have for the salvation of the world is not funding or fundraising, since the main scriptural plan is the Body of Christ spread like salt and positioned like lamps strategically throughout the neighborhoods and workplaces of the world. The problem is mostly our misconception of church, and our misguided reliance on clericalism and the paid priesthood. It is a poor pattern, especially when we hear so many committed disciples talk about “quitting their jobs so they can go into full-time ministry.” Get thee behind me! EVERY Christian already IS in full-time ministry! Paul’s pattern already directly relates to most Christians’ experience of the tension of a working life and a call to full obedience and availability to God. It fits with the needs for mobile missionaries to share Jesus and proclaim His kingdom in new mission fields and pockets. This awareness helps us focus on the people in front of us, rather than the funding we don’t yet have or might lose in the future. Today each of us should remember to work hard “so that we can win the respect of outsiders.” With their respect we have their ear. With their ear, they can hear the indispensable good news about Jesus.

(Personal note: this thinking flows out of my Ph.D. studies at the University of Sheffield, England, focusing on Paul’s style of leadership. Ingrid and I consider ourselves to be obeying this scriptural teaching by being self-employed missionary workers. I was formerly a paid church-as-we-know-it professional for over 20 years.)

slaves of Christ ("apostles")

Why do some people make apostles the new popes? And conversely, why do some claim there are no apostles today? Paul identifies it as one of the five gifts needed for the building up and maturity of the church. Why would some exalt this gift? Why would some believe that God has taken away this gift? The answer is centered in a misunderstanding of what an apostle was in the first place (in the Greco-Roman social context), and is based on a hierarchical understanding that places apostles at the top of the church structure when the New Testament clearly places them at the bottom. The understanding of leadership in the New Testament that should frame our understanding of apostles is the foot-washing, low-status slave (John 13), and the “race to the bottom” to become a “slave of all” (Matthew 20:20ff; 1 Corinthians 9:19).

An “apostle” in the ancient world is simply someone who is sent (Greek: apostolos). An apostle was someone who was sent to conduct someone else’s business on their behalf. There was—originally speaking—nothing religious about them. They were normally an unvalued slave, who was expendable.

Travel in the ancient world was dangerous, and something that individuals did not choose lightly. Who would have the right to send someone on their behalf? A slave owner or a governmental or military commander. The person sent—the apostle—did not have a choice. In the case of the government or military, the apostle sent with orders normally would be a part of an armed entourage. The slave-apostle would not have such protection. The master would pick the slave he could most afford to lose, and send that one to conduct his business in some extended location. The apostle-slave might be the same as the lowest household slave who was given the shameful duty of washing feet (see John 13). Mattering least, and therefore sent.

Paul identifies himself as one such sent-slave in many ways in his letters: “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). Paul’s most common self-description throughout his letters is: “I am a slave who is sent by Jesus to non-Jews to communicate the good news that the Kingdom of God has come in Jesus.” English readers of the Bible find it easy to overlook this important aspect of Paul’s self-understanding, since the 190 different Greek terms used for slavery in the New Testament are sanitized to “servant.” This is not a very appropriate translation, since in Paul’s day 1/3rd of the population of the Roman empire were masters who owned slaves, 1/3rd of the people were slaves, and 1/3rd were former slaves. Paul makes it clear what he means: slavery to Christ is about exclusive ownership—Christ is master/lord (kurios is the simple word for master-owner of a slave). “Am I now trying to win the approval of people or of God? Or am I seeking to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be Christ’s slave” (Galatians 1:10).

Another problem in understanding how the word “apostle” is used in the Bible is the medieval pictures we have in our minds of the twelve disciples of Jesus with halos around their heads, or the false assumptions that apostles were only religious figures, they were high status people with a lot of power, there were only a few of them and now they have ceased to exist or their work is now embodied in others with different titles (bishops of various sorts of the Catholic/Anglican traditions). This is a complete revisionistic interpretation of what an original apostle was. “Apostle” was not a title for a high status leadership position. Before and after Jesus “apostles” were low status slaves with no power of their own, and they were as common as dishwashers are today. If we practiced slavery like they did in the ancient world, when you said “apostle” today no one would think of the manager, owner or executive of a restaurant. They would think of the dishwashers and busboys. “Apostle” was not a claim to high status or authority, but a claim to low status and expendability. When you attached the words “of Christ” this communicated whose business and authority the apostle was operating under. Christ is the boss, he sent the apostle and, when the apostle speaks, he is merely the conduit.

Several years ago I wrote, “The leadership we need today is apostolic leadership” (Empowered Church Leadership: Ministry in the Spirit According to Paul [Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1999], p. 150). I describe what I mean in that chapter using all extra-biblical language (because we so hopelessly misunderstand the term “apostle,” and lose its import in hierarchical misinterpretation). “Apostolic” is not a scriptural term. If I were speaking scripturally, I would have explained why slave-apostles (like helps, giving, mercy, etc.) were common gifts then, and should be now. There were many apostles in the New Testament who were not the Twelve or Paul, who didn’t author scripture, and would not have considered the gifting a title, status or privilege. What we need more than anything is a release of these kind of slave-apostles for the mission of Jesus to the lost and hurting. God is a sending God and commands his followers to go to those who have lost their way, not waiting for them to come to us.

Many leaders have heard the buzz and read the books and would like to be “apostolic in their leadership” and yet remain in-charge, in safety and security, in the cushy-comfort of some Christian bunker. Can’t be done. To be an apostle is to become expendable, low status, and exposed to ridicule and insecurity in this life: “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ…” (1 Corinthians 4:9,10).

Apostles are given by God as a gift to the church and the world (Ephesians 4:11), and are needed most desperately. A church without apostles (and prophets, for that matter) is a fire without the flame. What’s wrong with this Body? We have severed an essential limb of apostles through intellectualism, religious control and the flesh (and therefore most gifts lie dormant and unoffered to God—the role of apostles is a mainstay in equipping the Body for service and maturity; Ephesians 4:11ff). Most apostles are not found in the church-as-we-know-it, and that is why the flame is burning hot elsewhere. Jesus is the boss—as He was sent, so He is sending these He owns to suffer and serve in order to make known the presence and coming fullness of His Kingdom. Apostles and prophets are the foundation of the church-as-God-wants-it (Ephesians 2:20; 3:5-6; 4:11).

We need them to be released. They are little “a” and little “p” apostles and prophets, nobodies who have become somebody to God through Christ. We are not talking about a new version of the “one man show” that plagues the church-as-we-know-it. As "foundations" apostles and prophets have the privilege of getting "buried" where no one can see them (see Ephesians 2:19ff). They are little a and little p apostles and prophets, but capital S on the end: “And God gave some to be apostleS, some to be prophetS…” We don’t need individualistic superstars. We need examples of what it means to “submit yourself to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Please Lord, send workers into your abundant harvest!