This month: 181 - Online Church
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

Remember Me    Register ›

Archives for February, 2018

It’s been nearly seven years since I’ve preached in a church of Christ.  And on certain nights I lose sleep, suffering through the nightmares that occasionally haunt me as scenes play out from old elder’s meetings, and the negativity cranky members spewed out.  So, I’m really not sure why I still engage in conversations surrounding the churches of Christ, in person or on social media.

While I was saved worshiping in a mainline church of Christ, and I preached for about 15 years in churches of Christ, presently I’m preaching in a “non denominational” congregation.  It seems weird, nearly sacrilegious, saying I have a love-hate relationship with the C of C, but that sums it up for me.  

I love many of the people and the core ideals that are foundational to the acappella branch of the Restoration Movement, but I’m emotionally exhausted and repulsed by the latent legalism and judgmentalism that is corroding her.  It seems like I can’t shake off my past completely, since apparently I still care.  

Someone recently asked me in a Facebook thread after I pointed out Paul’s practices, why the “brethren” in the C of C ignore Paul’s continued ties to his judaistic roots as Luke records in the book of Acts, and it struck me, if you pull one thread too much, the whole fabric unravels.  In other words, if we accept that Paul worshiped with instruments (thus offering an “example or inference” of New Testament believers worshiping with instrumental music), then maybe we are wrong about our acappella stance, and if we are wrong about that, what else might we have been mistaken about?  It’s too scary to even contemplate for some.  

No matter how firm the foundation is, a house of cards is doomed to failure.  The fragile-faith of many of the well-intending but ever so fearful members of the C of C is the crux of the issue.  If one gray area can hold complete sway over us, then we are in trouble.  There I go, using “we” when most of the folks I know wouldn’t consider me as part of the fold, based on my understanding of the non-essentials.  

It’s unhealthy to claim “who’s in and who’s out” because of doctrines that are argued mainly through the silence of the Bible on those topics.  To come back from the brink, it’s time to reassess how “we” will deal with gray issues.  Simply quoting, “In the essentials unity, the non-essentials liberty, and in all things love” isn’t enough and it has to become more than a platitude, if people are going to grow and mature.   

Jesus didn’t say all men would know we were His disciples, if only we would understood every doctrine correctly.  He said love was the ultimate testimony.  Therefore a good starting point in interpreting and applying the Bible would be to focus on developing love, instead of attempting to prove we are the only ones who are right.  Love is the only way to build on the firm foundation.  

I drove my seventeen year old to school the other morning. I haven’t been able to do that since she got her driver’s license so it was a nice reminder of how life used to be. About a mile from the school we saw the banners reminding us that going to school is not a casual event for us anymore. It’s a blessing we will no longer take for granted.

Dozens of signs on long stretches of highway lined the road reminding us we are strong. Marshall Strong. We need to see and hear that because there have been many times over the past several weeks when we certainly haven’t felt it. I pulled in and slowed down, not at the usual spot I had for her freshman and sophomore years, but at the place where all students will now be entering for bag searches and metal detections. As I drove away, I prayed for her and every person whose life has been terribly changed just by going to school.

A few miles later, I parked at another school. This time for work. I turned the music down and thought back over the last couple of weeks. The frantic phone call from my oldest child, trying to process the words “active shooter”, the call to my youngest child and the terror at the realization that it could make her phone ring and let a gunman know where she was hiding, the flood of tears at that moment (and this moment as I type that and remember the feeling), the sleepless nights that came later, the traumatized faces both young and old as we tried to make sense of something impossible to comprehend, the questions, the guilt, the grief over losing friends, and the fear. Not your average, run of the mill fear, but a fear I had never come face to face with before. A fear that, if given too much space and power, could ruin my life. I thought of the school administrators, teachers, and staff who, out of concern for the children they worked with, ran toward the gunfire not stopping to consider that they could be running to their own death. I thought about the great love they had for these children. For my child. I thought about the things they saw and heard and how they entered a chaos so dark and unknown to help, console, and save and then I realized this is how every Christian is to live. We are called to run into darkness and terror and help even when we’re terrified. And then I cried. Just sobbed tears of grief, exhaustion, and the reality that this is our life now and this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

I dried my tears, grabbed my things, and jumped out of the car. And then as I made my way across the parking lot I heard the church bells ringing throughout the city. I hear them every time they are played but today was different. This morning they sounded clearer. More intentional than ever and I was reminded of something better. Something eternal. Something strong enough to get us through the nightmare in which we were living. A call to worship in the very face of fear and grief.

I wish there was an easy explanation for why our society seems to be crumbling and a quick fix for it, as well. I don’t have a perfect answer but maybe it has to do with the fact that we glamorize violence and drama. Our nation, including our children (even our young children) are drug addicted and dependent. Mental illness is rampant. Family values are on the extinction list. We say we’re a Christian Nation, but we don’t take care of our poor or oppressed. We aren’t a champion for the least of these, either. We put more faith in Washington, DC than we do Jesus Christ. Our church pews aren’t filled and even if they are on Sunday mornings, our neighbors aren’t being served or loved the rest of the week. Just ask the local waiter or waitress on Sunday afternoon if we’re really the people we claim to be on the pew. We’re mean to each other on social media. Read the comments on news stories and bullies are the ones speaking the loudest. Comments on religious articles show another group of bullies. Church bullies. They’re the worst and they’re raising children to treat others just the same. We have problems. We have a society problem, a mental illness problem, a heart problem, a gun problem, a discipline problem, a government problem, a drug problem, and a respect problem. Our culture is diluted with problems. But God has not left us. If we would turn down the noise of our hectic lives we might hear the faint call to worship playing as a soundtrack to our lives.

Church, it’s time to step up. I know you’re struggling with life. I agree that it is ridiculously hard and at times, terrifying. I know some of you are stressed over your finances or with your marriages. Maybe you’re struggling as a single parent with the ex, with visitation, with child support, or the lack thereof. Maybe you’re totally completely on your own and feel so alone.

I know we all want to be loved and accepted. I know we are broken and hurt and sometimes don’t even feel like we are worthy to call on the name of Jesus let alone understand and believe it when we’re told we are the temple of God. I know we’re wrestling with the sins we’ve committed in the past and the sins we’re in the middle of right now. I know there are days we don’t even want to get out of our own beds. I know we’re busier than we’ve ever been and feel like we get nothing accomplished. I know we struggle with feelings of worthlessness, with insecurity, and with doubts. I know our children, parents, jobs, and churches can be exhausting. I know we wrestle with pride, selfishness, and gossip. I know there are times when we just want Jesus to come back so all this hurt will be over. But I know and believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that we love the children deeply and will do anything for them. So I challenge us all today to be the spiritual leaders they need. To encourage them to love God and love their neighbors. To rise above the drama and darkness that plagues us on social media platforms and in our communities. To turn off the news and open our Bibles. To return to God and commit our children to him. To encourage them to join youth groups and to get back into a church group ourselves.

Please quit believing that the government can fix all of our problems. And please quit arguing about it on Facebook. Refuse to listen to a world that tells you you’re not worthy to follow the Christ. Believe the God of Heaven and Earth when he calls you holy, chosen, and dearly loved. Shock people with your compassion and grace. Realize your neighbors need you. Your church needs you. Your children need you. They need you to speak words of light and love. They need you to model forgiveness. They need your peace and joy.

We need our people on the pews of our churches and we need our people on the curbs of our communities. We are missionaries. We are ambassadors. We are servants of the Christ. Our children need to see men and women of honesty and integrity who are preaching the name of Jesus. They need you. Yes, you! Stressed out, run down, overwhelmed, fed up, messy, broken you. Be the spiritual leaders that the children deserve. Show them that even when we’re tired and afraid, we can still be active in the work of the Lord. Rise up, bow down, and worship.

The next time someone tells you God isn’t allowed in schools, remind them of the men and women who ran towards the gunfire.

The next time someone says love can’t fix this world, remind them it already did. Now, it’s our move.

The next time someone wants to argue on Facebook, pray for them, and move on. You have better things to do with your life.

The next time someone grieves over this world, grieve with them but tell them about hope.

The next time life terrifies you, remember that it’s normal to be afraid but fear doesn’t get the final word. It doesn’t get to direct our path.

Regardless of this life and it’s trials we will refuse to let fear have the upper hand. In faith, we will radically love our families, our communities, our churches, and our enemies. We will rise above the terror. We will speak love and grace into the fire. We will refuse to stir the flames of drama and discord. We will humbly accept the mission to proclaim the name of the one who has called us out of darkness even when darkness arrives on our doorstep.

Evil may have its moments but its days are numbered. It may consume our nights but it will not win our hearts. Our God is faithful. Our God is redeemer. He is our strength, our King, and our comforter. We will endure. We will believe. We will worship.  

 

It is no coincidence that we are hearing about the #metoo movement at the same time we are dealing with another school shooting. It isn’t a coincidence because the root is the same – objectification. The same way you touch a person inappropriately is the same way you shoot a person with ease – objectification. Once you turn a human being into an object that person is to be used rather than to be loved. We have fed a culture of objectification for decades. Hollywood glorifies it and our parents and churches have abdicated their roles leaving kids to fend for themselves and communities without the Gospel. We are reaping what we have sown.

The great irony in this is that the objectification even becomes part of proposed solutions. When we leverage these events and movements for our political gain and agenda we further the objectification – the victims becomes tools to be used for political power plays. Same song, second verse. The problem continues on. Once anyone starts to think they finally found the moment to advance themselves they too are objectifying in the worst sort of way – using victims for selfish gain…no matter what political party you are a part of.

What is the solution? Is it better mental health coverage? Is it better screening? More laws? Enforcing the laws on the books? We might find a path through some of those things but three things happen if we aren’t careful. The first is that many of the solutions “distance” us from the problem. Too many of the solutions embrace the classic move of hoping Washington will solve it for us but they can’t. It is hoping Washington will do what the church should have been doing – changing hearts. You cannot legislate the heart but Jesus can change the heart. The second thing that can happen is we fail to recognize our role in both the problem and the solution. As long as we think it is someone else’s problem we fail to see the ways we participate in it. If you are addicted to pornography you have bought the culture of objectification, for instance. But few people make the connection that the underlying issue between these things is all the same. Third we deal with symptoms rather than the underlying problem, which is the heart. Until we address the heart you can pass all the laws you want. People will just keep breaking the rules. The Gospel is the greatest criminal preventative measure the world has ever known.

What is the solution? The solution is the Gospel. I know that can sound trite but imagine if Christians actually converted non-believers. Sexual abuse and mass shootings are mutually exclusive to following Jesus. If we can instill in our world the Judeo-Christian idea of the image of God being embedded in the lives of others we re-humanize rather than de-humanize. We begin re-distinguishing between objects (to be used) and people (to be loved). It is harder to shoot a person to be loved than an object to be used. The church needs to get back to doing its job if this is ever going to change. Unfortunately I believe we,  Christians, have lost our will to impact the world as we were called to do it. We are all paying for our being asleep at the wheel. Hopefully we can reclaim that. If we can we should see a revival in our culture of valuing things appropriately. Now is the time for Christians to step forward with meaningful solutions and one place to start is to stop objectifying each other when we talk about these issues. If that is too hard for us to do we are already doomed.

Words are simply inadequate. How does one even begin to put into words the tremendous, life-altering impact of a man like Edward William Fudge? A humble, quiet, unassuming man, always ready with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, yet blessed with a depth of insight into the marvelous grace of God and the hope that is ours through faith in Christ Jesus that has led countless believers to a greater hope and appreciation with respect to the Father’s redemptive gift of life in the Son.  Only at the great reunion of that longed for Resurrection Day will his impact on his fellow life-travelers be fully realized and appreciated.

So many disciples of Jesus are far more qualified than I to attempt a tribute to such a man. They could easily enumerate his many and varied accomplishments during his earthly journey better than I.  I am merely one lone voice in the vast crowd of appreciative spiritual sojourners who can testify to how deeply Edward touched my heart and opened my eyes to a greater grasp of God’s grace and our hope of immortality.

I love how his beloved wife Sara Faye eulogized him in a message to his “gracEmail family” on November 26, 2017:  “It is with a heart of profound sadness and triumphant hope that I write to inform you that our precious Edward has been released from his mortal body and rests in the sheltering arms of His Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, whom he loved and served all his life.  Saturday morning, November 25, 2017, God granted him the gift of an easy passing with his loved ones beside him. … Edward was a remarkable man whose gifts were many.  A brilliant thinker who could engage any scholar on that level, a consummate professional writer who could pack more into three paragraphs than anyone I ever knew. … But most of all, he was a Jesus man, as he termed it, who loved God with all his heart, believed even through the most difficult of times and circumstances, and loved to spread the good news of God’s redeeming grace far and wide.  He gave glory to God for every good thing in his life, aware that he was a sinner saved by grace, and prayed often for Jesus to come quickly.  He was confident in his salvation through the blood of Jesus, and sure of Jesus’ triumphant return on that great Resurrection Day.”

Sara Faye and Edward enjoyed a loving relationship that had lasted over half a century, and they were a true example of a man and woman who were “fellow heirs of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7).  Just a few weeks before his death, Sara Faye wrote to me saying that she and Edward had been discussing one of my most recent “Reflections” articles, and Edward had some insights he wanted her to pass along to me. I always treasured such times when I could tap into his vast reservoir of biblical understanding. I was especially blessed to be able to spend some quality time with him a few years back at “The Tulsa Workshop” where he and I were both speakers. A photo was taken during that meeting that I will always cherish (Edward and I are with a mutual friend: Rob Ford, an elder from Edmond, Oklahoma).


Perhaps Edward’s greatest contribution to the cause of Christ, apart from his powerful personal example of daily devotion to the Lord, was his work in the area of eschatological and soteriological understanding known as “Conditionalism,” which was a very logical and biblical alternative to, and refutation of, the more traditional view of the nature of man and his ultimate, eternal destiny. It was here that I first encountered Edward, and it was here that he helped facilitate the transformation of my own thinking.

Every now and then something occurs in a person’s life that has a lasting impact upon them; having the potential to alter the course of their lives.  For me, one of those momentous events took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1986.  I was the minister for a little congregation of about 150 members.  It was a great group, and my family and I stayed there for eight years (1984-1992).  One morning, as I was studying in my office, Dave England, one of the members, walked in, placed a book on my desk, and said, “Would you read this and tell me what you think?”  He then turned and walked out, giving me no indication as to his own views of the book.  I picked up the book and looked at the cover.  It was by Edward Fudge, someone I had never heard of, and the title was “The Fire That Consumes.”  I set it aside and continued with what I had previously been doing.

Some time later I noticed the book on my desk and picked it up again.  As I flipped through it I realized this was a presentation of a position on the nature of man and his eternal destiny with which I was completely unfamiliar, and, frankly, somewhat skeptical.  It seemed radically different from what I had always been taught to believe, although I must admit that I had never been completely comfortable with the traditional teaching on this subject, especially the view that God would torture people endlessly and find some satisfaction therein.

Over the next few days I read the book.  Then I read it again, this time much more carefully.  After that, I picked up my Bible and literally went through every verse, from cover to cover, over the next several months, examining the Scriptures to determine if “these things be true” (as did the Bereans in Acts 17:11 with the astounding teachings of Paul).  To make a long story short, I could not refute this view of the nature of man and his eternal destiny.  Indeed, the more I studied it over the coming years (and I studied it extensively and in great depth), the more convicted I became that Conditionalism (the view that man was by nature mortal, and that immortality was a promised gift conditioned upon being “in Christ Jesus,” and that eternal punishment was an everlasting loss of life itself, not just a “life of loss”) was a powerful Truth our traditional teaching had tragically subverted.

In the decades that followed that encounter in my office in Santa Fe, I have become increasingly vocal in my support of what I am convinced is the biblical teaching on the nature of man and his eternal destiny: an understanding for which I am forever grateful to Edward Fudge.  I have done considerable writing and teaching on this subject, and have always shared with those I taught just how significant an impact Edward had on my thinking. Over the years, Edward’s ministry and my own somewhat paralleled one another, and he was even gracious enough to make reference to my work in his third edition of “The Fire That Consumes” (p. 352-353). In 2014, I compiled my own writings and teachings on this topic into a 308 page book titled “From Ruin To Resurrection,” and Edward honored me by agreeing to write the Foreword to this book, even stating in that Foreword that “Al Maxey is perhaps the most influential popular presenter of this ‘Conditionalist’ (biblical) understanding in the Churches of Christ today.”


How does one properly say “Thank you” to another disciple of Christ for the impact he or she has had on their life?  Again, words seem so inadequate to express the depth of love and appreciation felt.  Maybe Edward expressed it best in the obituary that he wrote for himself, and which Sara Faye shared with his many friends:  “Always trust God – He is real, although invisible, and that is the most important thing you can do. Be nice to each other and support each other.  I love you and will see you on Resurrection Morning!  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  When Edward sent me a copy of his third edition of “The Fire That Consumes,” he wrote this in the front of the book:  “To my friend and fellow servant of Jesus Christ our life, Al Maxey, with appreciation for your faithful ministry of the Word, and in hope of immortality at the last day.”  Perhaps, then, our greatest tribute to this beloved brother is to always trust our God, to be nice to each other and support each other, and to share with others the gift of God’s grace: life everlasting in the Son, which will be fully realized on that great Resurrection Morning!  Until we meet again on that Day, my friend, rest in blessed peace!

We’ll start with a bit of observational science. Not much. It will be important later.

Watch two vehicles heading the same direction on the interstate, but in different lanes. When one overtakes the over, they tend to get closer, each moving a few inches closer. This is thought to be caused by the change in air pressure between two moving objects. As two objects pass each other,  they create a lower pressure system between them than that which surrounds them and, thus, there is a slight pull that is generally unnoticed and easily corrected (in newer cars, electronic steering controlled by the car’s computer systems minimize, but can’t eliminate, this effect).

A much more dangerous narrowing of the gap takes place when two cars, heading opposite directions, pass each other. Once again, we often see a few inches of closure before the drivers subconsciously correct. This time, the low pressure system is not the main culprit. Rather, the fact is that we tend to move toward that which we are watching. Think of the pull you feel as you stand near a large drop-off. You feel it because you are looking at it and are aware of it. If you don’t take corrective action with your balance, you can go right over (and it is thought that that is exactly what happened to Jimi Heselden, the inventor of the Segway, who drove off a cliff into a river).

I thought about this effect as I considered how easily it is to fall into legalism whether one considers oneself on the philosophical/religious left, right, or center. It seems that ancient sailors are not the only ones who are in danger of hearing the call of the Sirens and steering their craft onto the rocks. For those without knowledge of ancient Greek literature (no shame in that!), the Sirens were a mythical female/bird hybrid that sang songs so mesmerizing and alluring that sailors could not help themselves. They followed the songs only to lose their ships and their lives on the rocks hidden under the surface. Another version of the Sirens said their songs were so peaceful and lovely, they put the sailors to sleep. Once they were sleeping, the Sirens would board the ship and kill the sailors. It was impossible to resist the songs so Homer had Odysseus order his men to plug their ears and tie him to a mast so that he could hear them without following them to his doom.

Let’s move from the Sirens to the Pharisees. If all you knew about the Pharisees came from the Gospels, you would most likely think of them as the bad guys of their day. In fact, they were the restorationists, very serious about living a righteous life that would please God and return His favor to His people. They were focused and intentional  about keeping the law — or The Law — that God gave them via Moses. Their first error was keeping the law while not allowing it to change their hearts. The second error was that they were not content with following God according to their tradition; they required that all others do exactly as they did. If they did not fall into line, Pharisees treated them as enemies, not brothers.

When people think of the term “legalist” they tend to think of people to their right but, the fact is, legalism shows up all over the spectrum. The right is easy to spot and pillory but when I lived in that world, I took it very seriously. How seriously? I can remember a year where I had laryngitis to the point where I had nothing but a tortured squeak when I would try to speak. Doctors told me not to even whisper so my vocal chords could heal. Yet, on Sunday, I would make myself squeak out at least a song or bits of songs because I was convinced that if I skipped one of the five acts of worship, God would not accept any of my worship. When we baptized someone and a tiny bit of them didn’t go under, we baptized them again for we truly believed that anything above the surface negated the baptism entirely. We believed this so strongly that young ministers were told how to make sure a woman’s hair was completely submerged (and this was in the 60s-70s when women’s hair could reach Crystal Gayle lengths). I can remember a song leader stopping a song because someone was tapping their foot and he could hear it. We were then given a 5 minute talk on why tapping your foot hard enough to be heard was adding an instrument to the music and, thus, sinful, negating our worship if we did not stop it. This happened more than once.

I could go on for pages and pages and so could many of you.. It is easy to laugh at this sort of legalism but, please, don’t. We didn’t think of ourselves as legalists; we thought of ourselves as rational people who wanted to please a mighty God. We thought we were making God happy and it upset us that others didn’t agree with us. In self defense, we developed a simple catechism. I can remember Bible classes where we asked “Why do the Baptists use instruments in church” and the answer was “Because they don’t believe the Bible.” Another child asked “Why do the Methodists sprinkle instead of immerse” and the answer was “because they don’t believe the Bible.” We had the same answer to questions about Catholics, Democrats (or Labour Party), etc. ad infinitum.

As I studied and prayed my way to a more grace and love based faith, it wasn’t long before I found another legalism out there that wanted to pull me in. It came from the left. I read blogs that said I had to divest myself of any form of patriotism. Pledge allegiance to the flag? Idolatry! Join the military? You are attacking the Prince of Peace!  I remember how I felt listening to a minister talk about a church in his community that actually honored a man who just retired from 30 years in the Army. The minister was appalled that anyone “who calls themselves a Christian” could join the military or honor those who did. This was a hard pill to swallow for a man — that would be me — whose family had a 300 year history of military service and whose son was a United States Marine. In the church that raised me from 0 to 30, patriotism was part of the faith. We didn’t have the flag on the stage and we didn’t sing patriotic songs like “God Bless America” in church but hippies and protestors were shunned and considered ungrateful sinners. But pendulums swing. That’s is what they do.

Now, I often find myself in circles where pacifism in one form or another is assumed. I am not a pacifist. When I’ve told some ministers — most of them under 40 — they assume I’m a warmonger who doesn’t believe the Sermon on the Mount. It seems that nuance — that one can be an anti-war pacifist, say — is lost in the rush to stake out the new minimums of the faith. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut in certain places and just not go to some events…just like I learned to be quiet and avoid some events when I was on the right.

Then came social media and virtue signaling. “Virtue signaling” is making sure that others know that you agree with their passion and their dislikes by chiming in on social media. It is supposed to prove you are righteous and demonstrate your acceptability in your group. It is one click above those horrid “If you love Jesus you have to click like on this meme” things that make most of us shake our heads and move on.

I have taken a lot of fire for not joining in the attacks waged by left and right. Just a couple weeks ago I was upbraided by a brother right after my sermon as the people sang the last song. He couldn’t wait for the song to end to tell me how wrong I was not to attack Trump and the right. He was and is very disappointed in me…but others have been very disappointed (vocally and in print) that I said nothing in support of Trump and the right and that I didn’t preach against Hillary. As the country grows more divided, the Siren call of left and right gets louder, each side insisting that you agree with them and attack the other.

Everything that we see or hear is an opportunity to divide. In a recent Super Bowl commercial, Ram Trucks paid $5 million to air an ad that consisted of Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes about the honor of serving others. Ram had received permission from the King estate to make the ad and the estate approved the final ad…but the internet went ballistic. Half seemed to love it and half hated it and both sides were appalled at the other. And each hardened their position on social media, almost insisting that if one wished to be a good person, they HAD to move to their side. That is legalistic thinking, if not legalism.

Those of us who lived through the 70s and 80s remember that a movement began in our church that had, I believe, the best of intentions but devolved into legalism. It was called Crossroads, the Boston Movement, or the International Churches of Christ. They said that our congregations were dead, lifeless, without passion and fervor, and no longer were interested in discipling the world, teaching all to follow Jesus. And they had a point. A great number of our churches had devolved to become franchise churches offering approved franchise goods and services to those who liked our franchise. If we captured a Baptist every now and then, all the better, but the main aim was keeping the franchise the way we got it and without upsetting the members who gathered expecting a franchise event.

I can remember going to several meetings where the leaders of this new movement spoke with our leaders. Every meeting I attended, I’m quite glad to say, were civil and informative. I left each of them believing that the Boston Movement folk had a lot of good things to say and that their take on the deadness of many of our churches was spot on. The problem was with how they reacted to that lack of life, discipline, and fervor in the local churches of Christ. They established leaders that maintained strict discipline over others, setting up “soul talks” to closely monitor each individual. Abuses occurred, as they always will when one person is put in an authoritative position over another. The ICC developed a reputation for legalism and disrupting churches, families and schools with the demands they placed on their members. It was a new legalism. (The ICC has gone through several times of fire and reformation since then and is a still evolving church. At present, it isn’t wise or fair to paint all of them with the same brush we used in 1980)

And that was the first time I heard about legalism…and it was from our leaders who aimed that word at their leaders. Once I heard the term and saw it applied, I knew it applied to us as well and that was an uncomfortable realization. It was from that time that I began watching for legalism in my own church and in the lives and churches around me.

This is not a call to go to the middle of the road. I would think we should know by now by observing possums and armadillos that the middle of the road is not always a safe place. But legalism is sneaky. Its mechanism is easy to understand. It works something like this…

Can we all agree that praying for 30min at some point in the day would be a good and beneficial thing for the individual, the church, and the Kingdom? Okay then…make it a rule. Make it a law that, to be spiritual and pleasing to God, you have to pray 30min a day. Wow. That went sideways quickly.

Legalism is sneaky. It still gets me from time to time. And, speaking for those, like myself, who have fallen into legalism more than once, allow me to say that we are generally the last to notice where we are.

You see, each car that passes wants to suck you in. It is easier to go with the flow as there is less pressure if you do…but you will crash and die. It is better to focus on your own life and behavior, allowing your positions to change as led by the Holy Spirit than it is to decide you have found IT and you need to call others to IT, attacking them when their IT differs. When an attractive group sings a song that appeals to you, it is easy to join in and head that direction without thinking of the rocks that might lie under the surface.

At the risk of further alienating readers, allow me to say that this is another reason that I enjoy reading ancient creeds. Those that have survived and stayed popular — such as the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed — lay out a very simple faith, free of the barnacles that have attached themselves to our ship of faith over the centuries. They are a reset button, a wake up call that reminds us that not all of our thoughts, opinions, and positions are ancient and we might need to be more gracious about the way we hold them.

I am not sure how it all came about, but I have become somewhat of an Ann Landers or Agony Aunt (Google it, kids) to quite a few ministers. Most of them are young but a few, like myself, are nearing their dotage. At the same time, I am getting more and more emails from young men and women who want to be ministers and spend their life in service to the Lord. The latter group is asking for advice in how to prepare to live out their calling. So here it is.

One of my first pieces of advice is to get a trade, skill or profession in addition to their ministry degrees. If all you can do is preach, you might find yourself being held hostage to a paycheck. In my religious tribe, we are facing an incredible shortage of preachers, but it isn’t because we have no one who wants to serve. I’m convinced that many would love to serve, but, the way we have organized our churches over the years makes the profession of ministry a very tenuous and fragile thing. That poison pill has finally worked its way into our bloodstream and churches are closing left and right. Dr. Trace Hebert of Lipscomb University has tracked this and found 1034 congregations of the mainstream Church of Christ that have shut their doors since 2000 and the downward slide seems to be picking up speed. Any survey of “minister wanted” ads on a variety of websites and in publications such as The Christian Chronicle reveals that the majority are small congregations where the pay is going to be low (or where you have to bring some support with you) and the resources very lean. Many of them are dominated by a family group or one or two elders who maintain tight control over the aging congregation. You can spot those by ads that say they want a “sound” preacher or one from “our brotherhood preaching schools.”

Young and well-educated ministers don’t answer those ads unless they have nowhere else to go. Once there, they find themselves frustrated by rules laid down and enforced by people who have never built up a church, never gained a degree in Bible or ministry, and who have no idea how to do the job of a minister. And if the minister has a belief that is not shared by those in power? Or if the minister does not believe something that is considered a necessary belief by those in power? He is stuck (I would say he or she is stuck but the fact is that none of those placing these ads would welcome an application from a woman). He has to choose between his integrity and a paycheck. If he has school debt, a wife, children, or needs healthcare this becomes a truly devastating, soul destroying crisis.

The larger churches in our tribe treat their ministers with great respect, pay them well, listen to them, and treat them as equals with the shepherds, not as temporary, easy to change hirelings. That is one reason they are growing and doing so much good in the Kingdom. Of course, the rejoinder from those smaller congregations to the prospering congregations is “they must not be sound.”

So, I warn those entering the ministry: It isn’t just that you might live a muzzled, frustrated life if you have nowhere else to go, nothing else to do; it is also a fact that, in almost any other job, you can go through personal crises and still have a job. But if you or your wife or child suffer from depression or anxiety disorders, it is unlikely that most churches will put up with that for long and out you go. It is unfair, unkind and unchristian but it the way it is. If your marriage is rocky or, worse, ending, you can be out of a job the same week your marriage ends. With low pay, you likely have almost no savings to live off of and any severance pay you get won’t last long. No wonder I find so many former ministers working in other fields now.

It sounds like I am discouraging anyone from entering the ministry but what I am trying to do is make sure they walk in with eyes wide open and prepared to survive the capricious and thoughtless ways of some elders and church committees.

Have another skill. Be a nurse, a plumber, an electrician, long haul semi driver, accountant…whatever your gifts and interests lead you to. Avoid getting a teaching degree as your fall back because I know dozens of ministers who tried to stay in their town after getting forced out of the pulpit only to find that they weren’t hiring teachers in their locale. And if they were, the pay was abysmal.

So many ministers – men and women of all ages – tell me in person, on the phone or in email that they wish they could say what I say and do what I do. They are not saying that they agree with me about everything or that I am their hero (lots of better ones out there, people). What they are saying is that they sense a freedom in me and a lack of fear that they wish they could share. How did I get here? I have kept other jobs going the entire time I’ve been in ministry. It took years to set up, but I can go to work at a university, or I can go on the lecture circuit for schools, hospitals, companies, military groups and law enforcement. I can play instruments behind singers and maybe even harmonize with them. I can work in therapy and counseling and more than a few have suggested I do stand-up comedy (not at all sure about that one). The point is, I have kept those exit ramps active and polished. That gives me freedom to speak and teach and grow and change my mind and… you get the idea.

You have heard people say that if they could live their life over, they wouldn’t change a thing. I call those people Slow Learners. I would change almost everything except Jesus and Miss Kami. One thing I got right entirely by accident was loading up my resume and skill set with non-ministerial jobs. That way, when someone “writes me up” or a congregation that invited me to come speak dis-invites me and I have to wave bye-bye to a nice check, I am okay. I might be sad and a bit poorer, but I will be fine. As the great philosopher, Gloria Gaynor, said, “I will survive.”

I want all ministers to have that freedom. In our church system, they do not at present. I could go on and on about the flaws and errors in our present system but going into ministry is rather like going to war. Military leaders know that you do not go to war with the resources you want; you go to war with the resources you have. And we enter ministry not with the system and resources and world we want, but with those we’ve got.

Be real. Be ready. Be prepared. And then, be fearless.

There have been some spiritual giants who passed away over the last twelve months and it is fitting we take some time to honor them. This month’s theme will be a tribute to the people in our lives who influenced our faith who have died recently. I am thinking of people like Helen Young, Jay Guin, and Edward Fudge. I am also thinking about my own father who passed away the day after Christmas. As with any of our themes, not all of the posts will relate to this topic but this will be our focal point in February.

So let me ask you this, who has influenced your faith who has passed away in the last year or so? Tell us about them and what they mean to you.