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Archives for 105 – Being Church

Did your mom, perhaps your dad, sing to you as a child? You know, the songs while being rocked to sleep at night or while you were going down the road in the LTD station wagon? They are songs that never cease playing in our hearts and our minds.

Luke tells us that Mary sang songs much like her biblical namesake the Prophet of God (it is a horrific tragedy of the English Bible that many disciples do not know Mary the mother of Jesus is named after one the three deliverers of Israel, Miriam). I am certain that Mary did not sing this song merely once. Nor is this the only song Mary sang to not only Jesus but all her sons and daughters. Mary’s song is representative of what Jesus and his sisters and brothers heard from the lips of Miriam.

Mary was born, and bred, as a faith filled Jew. She was nourished on the vibrant heartbeat of the Hebrew Bible. She poured her hopes, and dreams, into the names of her children because the song was already in her heart. As any student of the Bible knows, names were not randomly picked out of a baby name book. Names were chosen to express something. I know my own daughters names were prayed over before chosen. Rachael is God’s lamb full of joy and love, while her sister Talya is the Lord’s rain/dew that blesses and nourishes the earth with grace. These names were chosen on purpose. Have you noticed what Miriam (named for a prophet) and Joseph (named for the savior of world and father of two tribes in Genesis) named their kids. Notice this “pattern” in Mark 6.3:

– Jesus = Joshua the salvation of the Lord

– James = another tragedy of the English Bible, is Jacob who is quite literally “Israel” himself (God changed his name and the word “Jacob” frequently is a stand in for “Israel” in the Hebrew Bible) and is the patriarch of the Twelve Tribes

– Joseph = named for dad and shares in the meaning

– Judas = named after Judas the Maccabee, the hammer of God, who delivered Israel from the Seleucid Empire

– Simon = was the brother of Judas the Maccabee who continued to lead the Maccabean Revolt

Notice anything about these names of Jesus’s brothers as the Gospels record them? They say something about Mary and Joseph. Their hope for Israel has not vanished in the slightest.

That hope is expressed in her song. Scholars have noted that “Miriam’s” song is Hebraic, it is so “Old Testament,” it is just so Israelite. And it is. Mary taught her sons and daughters to dream of the salvation of Israel. Or as New Testament scholar Richard Horseley called her songs, “revolutionary songs of salvation.”

This song by Mary set the agenda for Jesus’s life and ministry in the Gospel of Luke and the pattern of the church in the book of Acts. There is a Miriam at the creation of the old Israel, and there is a Miriam at the beginning of the reNEWed Israel … the prophet who gave birth to the Lord’s Salvation.

What did that song sound like. What song flowed through Jesus’s mind as he mingled with the lepers, the prostitutes, the poor, the traitors (tax collectors) … Jesus has the Hebrew Bible in his soul via his Mother.

My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior … he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant Israel in remembrance
of his mercy according the promise he made to our ancestors  …

The most obvious Hebraic root here is Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2.1-10, but the thought is ubiquitous in the Hebrew Bible. But Miriam/Mary identifies herself among the lowly, the down and out powerless people of this age.  This taps into the fundamental identity of Israel as being the lowliest of nations. So lowly was Israel that the state sponsored terrorism against their baby boys. Thus Deuteronomy and Ezekiel stress that God “loved” Israel because no one else would (Dt 7.7-8; Ezk 16.1-7, in Ezekiel, Israel is an unwanted and exposed infant girl, not boy, whom the Lord saves). Jesus never forgot the songs of his mother and was always proudly among the unwanted of the world.

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty

It is impossible not to hear the Psalms pulsating through Mary’s song. And perhaps this is why that holy books was so treasured by her son. Texts like Psalms 18.27; 89.10 and a dozen more come to mind. 

For you deliver a humble people,
but the haughty eyes you bring down
.” (Ps 18.27)

you scattered you enemies with
your mighty arm.
” (89.10)

But what is it that God has done? What is it that Mary poured into Jesus, James, and Jude’s heart (the last two have epistles in the NT)? In other words what did salvation look like?

First, salvation meant the powerful are brought low and the low are lifted high (v.52). A great reversal is what salvation brings. This perspective permeates Jesus’s teaching in the Gospel of Luke. There was a Rich Man who saw Lazarus, the lowliest of the lowly. We know what happened. Mary was pouring Jubilee theology into Jesus in her songs.

Second, salvation meant the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty (v.53). This is also Jubilee. This is also Exodus. This is also reversal. This is not pie in the sky escapism as in Gnosticism. Salvation is not from God’s creation rather salvation is experience within God’s creation. Salvation meets the hurting and out of wack world exactly where it needs, in the flesh and blood of reality. So Jesus tells all kinds of stories of a Jubilee banquet (Lk 14.15-24) in which the poor, the lame, the blind are brought to feast at the table they would routinely be excluded from. Salvation impacts and revolutionizes the world in which we live. 

Third, salvation is an act of mercy and faithfulness to the promise to the ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Israel (v.54-55). Why did Mary name her sons Jesus/Joshua, Jacob and Joseph? These sons all represent the HOPE of the Promise “to his servant, Israel.”

To put this in terms we normally use, Mary’s says that salvation comes because of the Old Testament, salvation comes on Old Testament terms and not contrary to it or in spite of it. Jesus did not forget this. Lazarus is “carried away to be with Abraham” (Lk 16.22). And Abraham tells the rich man if he wants to know salvation then he needs to listen to Moses and the prophets (16.29-31).

Miriam’s song reverberates throughout Jesus’s ministry and the life of the church as Luke tells the story. Mary’s song became treasure buried in the heart of Jesus, James and Jude and defined the content of their mission and ministry (James is clearly an advocate of the lowly in his short letter).

It is not a stretch to say that Jesus’s ministry would not be what it was had it not been for his Mother singing the songs of Israel to him. Today, the church needs to hear her song afresh. Mary’s song reminds us that the Gospel is not a message of what happens merely after we die. The Gospel is a message that says death itself will no longer rule the world God created, even for the least of these.

Mary’s song reminds us that the mission of God was the mission of Jesus and ought to be the mission of the church. We bring good news to the lowly, a message that changes the world. And finally Mary’s song reminds us that it is simply impossible to have either Jesus or the “New Testament Church” without being “Israel” and part of the family of Abraham, Isaac and … Israel (Jacob).

Mary’s Christmas song is one we need to remember all year long. 

When I turned 40 I decided; in order to keep up with my sons I had to get into better shape. So I did what you were supposed to do, I joined a gym, got an app for my phone, bought some shoes, and buckled down for this life changing experience. The first time I walked in the gym, I was lost. It’s a bit intimidating to see all of these folks who are walking from machine to machine or picking up weights. I decided that I would start on the treadmill, I had at least been on one of those before, and then I would branch out from there. But, this was not like any treadmill I had ever seen, there were buttons, lot of buttons, for my weight, my speed, my incline, and my preferred pulse rate; I must have stood there for 5 minutes looking at these buttons trying not to make a fool of myself before the person on the treadmill beside me said, “You can just press the start button and go faster or slower.”

That day I made a new friend B.J., who was only at the gym for aerobic activity, that’s a fancy way of saying she just came to the gym to get on a treadmill and a bike. She didn’t understand the folks who wanted to lift weights, but “different strokes!” she would always say. She believed that the best way to get into shape was to work your heart, and eat a balanced meal. So, for the first month I would go to the gym, meet B.J. and run for a while, then get on the bike. She answered my questions, gave me advice, and helped make the gym a safer place for someone who had no idea what they were doing.

I was becoming more and more comfortable with the gym, so one day I wandered over to the machines, read the instructions, and met Terry. Terry was an older man who was always hanging out around the machines. I found out that Terry had shoulder problems, and a “machine was the best way for older and injured people to work out.” Terry was the one who told me about muscle groups, he explained that soreness and stiffness were all a part of the process, and he encouraged me to keep working through it. He was a great help to me as I was still trying to figure out what I was really supposed to be doing.

Terry was convinced that I was young enough to make an aggressive step forward, so he introduced me to Tony. Tony was a man who was as wide as he was tall and could bench press more than his weight. Tony had no time for a treadmill or a machine; he was interested in getting bigger and that only happened with heavy free weights. Tony shared with me that tall people don’t get big muscles, but we could still be strong if we worked hard. “We might not be able to look like we have big muscles, but we can all be strong.”

B.J., Terry, and Tony were not the only folks I met at the gym; there was the guy who had a bad back so, he just showed up to stretch and get on the water massage table. There was the woman who just came to eat lunch with the folks who worked there, and there were lots of folks who came in, milled around for 15 minutes and then left. Everyone was showing up to the gym, had a different idea of what you were supposed to accomplish, and were willing to help anyone who wanted to come and get better. I enjoyed my time at the gym, and was given the time to explore, get comfortable, and accomplish some of my goals.

Over the years, I have been a member of different gyms, and even though the locations have changed, I have noticed there are the same type of people at every gym. If you have made a resolution to get in shape, or just be healthier, and join a gym, you are going to find folks who have made great strides in their health and fitness who are willing to help the new folks who look lost. There will be those who only do cardiovascular work, folks who only use the machines, and folks who like free weights. There will be folks who just come to wander around, and those who are there to be social, but they are all there. They show up because they are convinced that their way is the best, and at times, the only way. But in the end they are going to help people who agree with them and those who disagree with them in their effort to get better.

There is a great passage in Acts 15 where the church is dealing with the Gentile question. I don’t want to lean too hard on my gym illustration, but I would imagine that there were many different ideas in that gathering, of what it looked like to be a child of God. There were those who were born and raised in the Jewish faith, who thought the best way to get into shape was by using the free weights. The Jewish proselytes were probably big fans of the machines, while the Gentiles preferred doing cardio. Everyone in the room had their own ideas of what it looked like to get your spiritual life in shape. That’s what makes James’ statement so beautiful. James was not only the brother of Christ, but as a Jew from birth, he was steeped in the culture and belief system of the Jewish faith. It would have been easier, not to mention more comfortable, for James to say that someone must become a Jew and fulfill the Jewish law before they could come to Christ. Instead, he went against his culture and declared “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:19-21).

There will be times when people come to your fellowship, longing for the opportunity to find a community that will love and walk with them. I am sure that there are those who believe the best way to come into a relationship with Christ is through using the free weights of intense study. They love digging deep into the text and believe that anyone who comes to Christ must also dig deep into the scriptures. You also have those who like the machines, they love worship, and spending time together singing and praying. They feel closest to God when they are worshiping Him in times of quiet introspection and corporate celebrations. Finally, you will have those who are invested in the treadmills; they believe that if you are going to be a Child of God you must understand and accept forgiveness, grace, and the love of God. In their minds, the best way to live out a changed life is to show God’s love in acts of compassion and service.

The object of every witness is not to convince people to think like you do, or believe like you do; the object of every witness is to introduce others to Christ. For those who were raised in a family of believers, we often miss how difficult it is to turn to God. Our job is to help people make that transition. People are attracted to Jesus for different reasons, let’s do what we can to help them connect to Jesus; be it on the treadmill, the machines, or free weights.

What I’ve loved about Wineskins for over two decades now, is its safe environment to exchange our new ideas, or to even stretch our comfort zone.  I would like to utilize this format now to raise an issue none of us really want to face head-on, yet this common struggle is decimating us.

Take a deep breath, and let’s be brave together.  If there’s one great weakness we’ve mutually experienced through our blessed Restoration Movement, it is the inevitable fracturing within our fellowships.  Our tendency towards fragmentation is the “elephant in the room” and it is our Achilles tendon.

The main factor contributing to our division isn’t necessarily what we typically think it is.  Our main problem does not stem from the way we individually view Scripture, or how we might understand doctrinal positions like women’s roles, or even how we chose to worship.  I think those are all red herrings.

Our inability to maintain unity is due to our lack of one very particular skill.  Conflict resolution.

We are afraid of conflict because we are unequipped to manage it.  Our anxiety levels skyrocket at the mere thought of confrontation.  We therefore repeat an unhealthy cycle, over an over again, one that almost feels like a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Conflict, to be clear, isn’t the problem, but not knowing how to deal with it is killing our brotherhood.

I know about this fallout from a painful and very personal experience.  Several years back as I ministered in what could be described as a fairly mainline church, we eventually called up the “Church Doctor” when our corporate pain was unbearable.  Yes, we reached out to none other than Charles Siburt.  Two years after our work with Dr, Siburt concluded, the pain was still too raw for a slim percentage of our congregation, and nothing would satisfy this small group short of my departure.

This is a story that feels as old as time itself.  A church has a conflict, the minister moves on or there’s a new set of elders installed, and we repeat the same scenario three to five years later.  As a result, we all limp along, somewhat wounded, somewhat cynical.  Could this be why so many of our younger people shy away from our churches?

But that’s not the end of the story.  We can write a new chapter when God happens to breathe new life into those who are open to His moving.  It seems like the Spirit is closest to us in our most difficult times, or shortly thereafter.  And, afterwards, once the healing begins, we learn to apply some of the core Scriptures that instruct us on how to live as a community, on how to get along, on how to be the Body.

If we want to thrive in our congregations and see God’s Kingdom increase, we need a new perspective on conflict.  If you attempt to implement change, you can be sure there will be conflict.  Conflict is almost necessary for growth, because at its basic level conflict is nothing more the friction that happens as two or more opinions are shared.  Conflict is neither evil nor harmful, what makes conflict healthy or unhealthy is how we manage it.

Sadly, in our Movement we haven’t had the greatest history of dealing with our conflicts very well.  The good news is, once we acknowledge our very real problem, we can turn a new page and embrace our differences, and we can overcome our conflicts through practicing the one doctrine that unequivocally bonds us together, that being, Love.  It’s only by this Love that all people will know that we are His people.

Call me old fashioned, but maybe it’s time we revive an old saying in earnest, “In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials liberty, and in all things love.”

 

 

I was asked recently where I thought the churches of Christ were headed. I started thinking about the issues that plague the Kingdom. We all have an opinion on gender equality, instrumental music, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (or not) and the general apathy that resides within our auditoriums but none of those came to mind first.

I sat at a stop light in Nashville a few weeks ago and watched the woman on the curb.  Her long black hair was in dreads and her cardboard sign was held at such an angle that I couldn’t read it.

I reached for my purse and started looking for cash, pretty sure that there wasn’t any but hoping I might be wrong. I pushed back the inner thought that wanted to instruct me on my next move and proceeded to search anyway. Before I could ask my teenage daughter if she had any money, the light changed and the car behind me took that as their queue to start honking.

We rode in silence for several miles before my daughter began telling me that she had been told that we shouldn’t give money to people like that because they could use it for something they shouldn’t. We should give them food instead. I nodded. That was the same advice I had been given growing up, as well. But it never sat right with me.  I silently reconsidered that popular, although I now believe false way of thinking before I shared my new view with my daughter.

Why have we become so arrogant that we label every beggar an alcoholic or drug addict? Is it because we have spent so much time serving the poor and have witnessed people taking our money and heading straight for the liquor store? Perhaps, but I’m beginning to think that it’s so much easier to label, judge and move on.  It’s easy to tell myself that money given would be used unwisely. I’m not sure about you but I seldom carry a warm meal around with me. That argument, although well intended by good hearts, lets me off the hook. Every. Single. Time.

I’m tired of the belief that the poor need only to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and start managing their money better. I’m weary of Christians who follow the Jesus who turned up his nose at the poor and who preached a sermon of only helping those who help themselves. That’s not the Jesus I read about in Bible. That’s not the Jesus who came to save us. That’s certainly not the Jesus who saved me.

I remember the nights of wondering where food would come from. I remember the lights being turned off and the water stopping. I’ve been there and I wasn’t strung out on drugs and didn’t look for comfort in a wine bottle either. So what gives me the right to judge what every beggar does when I was that beggar myself?

What would happen if every act of benevolence was between us and God and not us and the world? What if our first thought was what God would do with our offering instead of what others will do with it?

I have watched the church do great things for the poor but I still believe that we have a long way to go. Where are the churches of Christ headed? I hope it is to the place where the hungry aren’t judged but are fed. I hope that we learn and accept the fact that the government system we criticize for helping the poor would not even exist had we cared for our neighbors the way we should. I hope we open our buildings to those in need of shelter and serve our communities. I pray that we will spend our lives washing the feet of those who live around us so that no one is in need. I want us to be Jesus to those living in the darkness; to stop our busyness long enough to listen to the broken stories and build relationships. Money lasts for a moment. Relationships can carry people throughout eternity.

Like Peter in the beginning of Luke 5, we love the Father and we follow with all of our hearts the God who created the Heavens and Earth. We know and love Scripture but we aren’t always ready to follow his son. The one who calls us into the broken places. God, in the form of Jesus, taught love, grace and mercy. He took his followers into the hard situations and surrounded them with people who didn’t look like, live like, love like or sin like they did. And if we’re willing, he’ll do the same with us today. Getting our hands dirty with the world while showing them Christ is the reason we’re here. Our mission isn’t to congregate into nice buildings on Sundays. It’s not to show up on Wednesday nights. It’s not about attendance. It’s not about a pulpit. That’s not our purpose.

Drop your nets of fear. Drop your nets of selfishness. Drop your nets of pride, arrogance and greed. Drop your nets of routine and tradition. Church, drop your nets and follow Jesus. Serve the poor and change someone’s world.

 

 

 

 

The following excerpt comes from Frank Viola’s just released book, Jesus Now: Unveiling the Present-Day Ministry of Christ. Frank’s book is 50% off between May 5th and May 8th at parable.com (the best price anywhere) PLUS you’ll also receive the Study Guide as a FREE gift. Click here to get the book from Parable this week.

The Holy Spirit is the reality of Christ’s presence. The Spirit dispenses to us the very life that Jesus lived.

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came as the Spirit of the glorified Christ, the Spirit of the incarnate, crucified, and exalted Jesus. Note that the risen Jesus didn’t become the Holy Spirit.

He rather came in the Spirit. Today, Jesus is present with us through the Spirit.

For this reason, the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of Jesus (Rom. 8:9; 1 Pet. 1:11; Acts 16:7; Phil. 1:19). And Jesus is called a “life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45).

The continuing humanity of Christ in heaven is the guarantee of the new humanity that awaits every believer.

Because the Holy Spirit has been sent to earth, authentic humanity is now a reality made possible.

Ephesians 4 uses the images of descent and ascent. These terms remind us of the Old Testament high priest when he ascended the steps of the temple on the Day of Atonement

for the forgiveness of sins. Then he descended to where the people were. Jesus ascends to heaven, and the Spirit descends to earth while Christ’s throne is established at God’s right hand.

Jesus ascended to the place from where He descended (John 3:13; 6:62; Eph. 4:10). Our eternal hope is found in His ascension, for He secured the glory for all who follow Him.

The incarnation was Jesus leaving God’s space to enter man’s space. The ascension was Jesus in His incarnation leaving man’s space and going back to God’s space.

The Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven in the same body in which He lived, was crucified, and rose again. Now, as a life-giving Spirit, Jesus communicates His life and presence to the members of His body across all realms, times, and distances (1 Cor. 15:45).

Because Christ is now in the Spirit, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are sometimes spoken of interchangeably in the New Testament, even though the Spirit and the risen Christ are distinct persons (John 14–16; 2 Cor. 3:14–18).

The Holy Spirit is able to connect all believers to Christ. For this reason, Jesus said it was better for Him to go so that the Spirit could descend (John 7:39, John 16:5-15).

A careful look at John 14–16 reveals that Jesus would return again in the Spirit after He ascended. And He did so at Pentecost.

In sum, the Holy Spirit unites us to Jesus Christ and to His body. He reveals Christ to us, gives us His life, and makes Christ alive in us.

The Spirit takes the experiences of Jesus—His incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension—and brings them into our own experience. Because of the Holy Spirit, the history of Jesus Christ becomes our story and experience.

The Holy Spirit grants what Christ bestows. He makes real and experiential the work of Jesus. Therefore, we cannot separate what Christ does from what the Spirit does.

“Because I wanted to tell people about Jesus so that they can follow him too!”

That was the primary reason why fifteen years ago I began pursuing a life that would eventually lead me into congregational ministry as a preacher. There were people who encouraged me along the way, including my wife, and I have always enjoyed helping people as well as studying the Bible and theology. I wanted to tell people about Jesus and believed God wanted me to do so as well. All that to say I believe God has led me to where I am today.

I still believe that.

But in all honesty, there are times when I wish that I didn’t have this burden.

Reality

A few weeks ago when visiting my alma mater, Harding University, I was asked to speak with a small group of students who are discerning if God is calling them into ministry. My impromptu topic was to share with them the reality of the struggles faced in ministry without scaring them too much.

Um… Ok. I can do that.

But the truth is, serving as a minister has been more challenging than I ever imagined it would be. To be fair, I’ve made some mistakes along the way. Ministry is always a learning curve and there’s plenty that I would do differently if I could do it over again.

I’ve also experienced frustrations that were not my own making. Every church says that it wants to grow, engage the youth, reach out to the community, and so on. But not every church wants to let the minister (or ministry staff) lead them in those endeavors because it requires change. That’s frustrating!

Beyond that, as a minister, I’ve learned that not everyone will like me. In fact, I’ve encountered things that were said and done which were discouraging, to say the least, and even hurtful at times. Sometimes I saw it coming and other times it was like being sucker-punched.

That’s not the entire picture of ministry, thankfully. There are many great moments that I’ve experienced in ministry. Every baptism has been a joyous occasion. Every time God has been at work during a sermon or conversation and someone has come to me with a story of how they are trusting more deeply in the grace of God, trying to live more like Jesus, desiring to be a better husband or wife, a better parent, a better neighbor… Every time a church has extended hospitality and generosity to a person or family in desperate need… Every time a church has said “Yes!” to the needs of a missionary or ministry that seeks to serve the world in the name of Jesus…

Burden

Those are some of the great moments in ministry and I’m thankful for them. However, in those frustrating times, and sometimes they seem to come like a tidal wave, serving Jesus as a minister of the gospel is difficult. In fact, I understand why some ministers decide to leave ministry for good and I don’t hold that decision against them at all. But I can’t leave! Nor do I want to!

Since you’re asking why, I’ll tell you. It’s the burden… I still have it and it keeps growing.

That’s why I stay in ministry. Believe me, I don’t serve as a minister because of its cathartic nature (if I can be a little sarcastic) and it’s not because I love what I do, though I do love being a minister of the gospel. I stay for two reasons and they have to do with this burden.

First, I believe God has called me for this ministry. So I must stay. I remain because I still believe in the church. I believe in the Spirit-filled body of people who belong to Christ… his bride! This is not naïveté, which I hope is clear by now. Churches have problems, some more than others. Sometimes the problems seem so numerous and exasperating that you would not believe them unless you saw them for yourself. Just ask the Apostle Paul about the Corinthians. And yet Paul still regarded them as “saints” (cf. 1 Cor 1:2).

That’s because Paul saw the church for what God had made the church to be. Paul understood that Jesus was crucified so that these people could become his holy people. Regardless of the problems, Paul still saw God at work among the church. Paul saw the potential among the church. Paul knew that it was still the church, even in all her weaknesses and follies, but Paul also knew that it was among these people whom God was carrying forth his mission of redeeming the world in Christ.

Vision

I see the same things in the church today, wherever she gathers and lives. Churches will always be less than perfect (and ministers too!) but they’re still the saints. The church, and more importantly every local church, is still the people through whom God is proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. My calling, I believe, is to help lead churches to do just that and be the people who tell their neighbors about Jesus so that they can follow him too. So I stay.

Today I encounter a lot of church members who are frustrated with their church too. I understand most of the frustrations. As I’ve said, I’ve been frustrated too. But if we could recapture the vision of who we, the church, are called to be rather than just seeing who we are, then maybe… Well, maybe, just maybe, being church begins with believing in the church as “saints!” And doing that means extending the same grace that God offers us to the church!

So I say all that to say, I hope you’ll stay with me!

April has been a very busy month for this over-committed preacher/student/teacher/writer/mother/wife, so I wasn’t able to write something new for this month’s issue of “Being Church” like I had hoped. Instead, I’ve included below the text of my talk from the Sunday that the Stamford Church of Christ announced that I was going to start working there as an Assistant Ministry (July 7, 2013). This text already exists on the web at Gal328, and the audio can be heard on Stamford’s sermon player if you scroll down far enough.

I’m including it as part of this issue of Wineskins because it does begin to get at an aspect of “what it means to be church” that is important to me, which is “staying put.” It is *very* important that you understand that I am not saying that *all* people ought to stay in Churches of Christ specifically, although that is the decision I have made. I am only speaking personally: for me, being church means staying put in the tradition that raised me even though that has not always been easy. And for others, I think being church means at least listening to the voices of those who may experience church differently than you, regardless of whether you agree with them. For that reason, I think this (but more importantly, the other “voices of experience” available at Gal328), are an important part of an issue on the topic of “Being Church.”

My call to ministry has been less like a Burning Bush or a Damascus Road situation, and more like an awareness of personal skills and life situations that make a particular path a good fit. My path is made up of steps that, only in retrospect, show that God was leading me to ministry, to what turns out to be this moment. Dale has already given you a sketch, but I’d like to share more with you about a few of those formative moments.

I was raised in the Church of Christ. My parents gave me a love of church. We were there Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, Saturday youth group, summer church camp, potlucks (though we called them fellowship meals), small groups, picnics, work days…you name it, we did it. And church wasn’t just somewhere we went, it was what we did and who we were – you can go to a building, that is something you can do, but you can’t go to church ’cause the church is you – you know. My parents’ best friends were from church and my best friends were their kids. We lived in community. Churches of Christ were my people. And these were the people who gave me a love of Scripture: reading it, studying it, memorizing it, Bible Bowling it – even teaching it (to other girls and in children’s church, of course).

When I was deciding where to go for college, I only considered Church of Christ schools; I chose Rochester College (in Michigan). I started out as an English major, then became a Bible major because those were the classes I was most excited to attend. But I was intentionally “just” a Biblical Studies major, decidedly not a ministry major. My intention was to go on to get a PhD and teach college Bible courses. But even Biblical Studies majors have to take a preaching course, which I put off literally as long as I could, until my Senior year. And in that class I discovered that I loved preaching, that I was good at it even. But at this point, I didn’t think it was worth fighting over or fighting for. Upon graduation, I planned to pursue the M.Div., but, again, for the purpose of going on to a PhD and teaching college Bible courses.

For my M.Div., I chose another Church of Christ school, Abilene Christian University. This was the first time I had female classmates who wanted to minister in Churches of Christ; at Rochester the only other female Biblical Studies major was also “in it for academics” – at least at the time. So my first passion regarding gender justice in Churches of Christ was advocacy-based. It wasn’t for me; it was for my friends. Again, I put off taking the required preaching course until my last semester. Again, I found that I loved it. And again, it was confirmed that I was good at it. But this time around, I also found that I wanted to do it, that it was worth fighting for. What had started out as advocacy had turned into hope. Abilene is also where I met and married Jamey, who was planning to do a PhD and teach Bible at the college level.

These two factors led me to reconsider my long-held plan of doing a PhD: First, since it is unlikely that Jamey and I would receive tenure-track teaching positions at the same university in the same department. But second, and mostly, because I was ready to admit that my plans to teach were at least partially denial. (I was also able to teach a few undergraduate courses at ACU, and found that to be something that I enjoy and have skill in as well, so this is not to say that teaching is nowhere in my future; just that I was hiding behind it.) I was afraid that being honest, with myself and with others, about my desire to preach would open the floodgates, that it would consume my life and make it impossible for me to both be faithful to who God had made me to be and to continue to love God’s people. It turns out there was good reason for this fear. My initial steps toward speaking out for gender justice in Churches of Christ were met with anger, resentment, condemnation, judgment, disappointment, and confusion – by complete strangers and, more painfully, by some very close to me.

It was in the midst of this that we moved to Princeton for my husband’s PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary. In this time of transition, as we searched for a church home, I thought of leaving Churches of Christ so that I could more easily find work in a church. In fact many people suggested that I do just that – some suggested it to get rid of me, others suggested it out of concern for my spiritual health. I thought of it, but I never really considered it. I could no more leave Churches of Christ as I could leave my family. Just as I will always be my parents’ daughter, I will always be Church of Christ. Even if I stopped attending a Church of Christ and attended another church, Churches of Christ would not stop being my people. They are the tribe that formed me, that instilled in me the very gifts I now want to use for ministry. Although I am certainly not what my church intended or could ever have imagined, the fact remains that it made me who I am.

And, again, there’s the question of advocacy. I have other female friends who want to preach. I have nieces. I have friends with daughters. Maybe someday Jamey and I will have a daughter. There are women, young and old, many of whom I have never met, who have been silenced and ignored. If everyone who wants Churches of Christ to change leaves, what will become of them? I felt – I still feel – that as long as God gives me the strength to stay, in fact even on the days that I’m not so sure I have that strength, Churches of Christ are where I’ll be.

This commitment is what brought us here to Stamford, even though it is a two-hour drive from Princeton. I had heard about Stamford in undergrad at Rochester from my friend and fellow soccer player, Hudney Piquant, who attended here. I had heard about Stamford while at ACU, that it was one of the few Churches of Christ in the country who had welcomed women into its pulpit. I had heard about Stamford from Justin and Kat Burton, who Jamey knew in undergrad. So we visited, and we could tell from just one Sunday that things were different here. This is the type of church that we wanted to attend. In fact, this is the type of church that I wanted to work for and work with in embodying the mission of God in the world.

Those are the steps that brought me here. Like Jonah, I ran and hid and denied a little bit along the way; I’ll even admit that I have cursed my share of leafy trees. But it is clear to me looking back on my story so far that God was shaping me – through parents who modeled community life and gave me a love of church, through a community that encouraged in me a love of Scripture, through preaching classes I did not want to take, through professors and mentors, and through a hundred other people, skills, and situations – to minister to God’s people.

And it’s clear to me from Dale’s story that God was shaping you to be the kind of church that would provide space for me to minister – though it may be risky socially for all of us, though it may be costly monetarily for all of us, though it is always difficult to commit to live together in community.

So, as I stand here today, I have many emotions. I am excited. I am grateful. I’m a bit scared. But I’m confident that God will use you in this next year to shape and challenge me in ministry, and I’m hopeful that God can use me to shape and challenge you as well. I’m not exactly sure what that will look like, but I can’t wait to see what the God who clears a path through roaring waters, who reveals a way in the wilderness, who makes a stream in the dessert, and who provides a ministry position in Churches of Christ for a woman (!) will do among us in the next year.

It was hard for many to imagine this day would come. But, to the one who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be the glory in the church – in this church, in you, and in me – to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen!

One of the main words that comes to mind when reading Acts is the word “fluid”…they were on the move and they were nimble. They were adaptable…able to move and shift in necessary ways to continue being and doing the things they had been called to be and to do. When persecution broke out, they scattered. When they scattered, they took the Gospel message with them (Acts 8:1-4). It didn’t take a quarter long class in how to reach your neighbor to reach the lost. It doesn’t appear they needed that because their faith in the risen Lord was everything to them. Like the mustard plant, the kingdom reflected by the early believers, was invasive…it couldn’t be contained. It spread…and spread…and spread…just like Jesus said it would.

It didn’t spread as much by brick and mortar as it did by organic, relational outreach.

Paul vs. James
When I think of someone who was very fluid in his approach to ministry in the book of Acts, I can’t help but think of Paul. There were seasons Paul stayed put and ministered for several years, like in Ephesus and Corinth. But Paul was very much like the people of Israel in the wilderness…moving when the cloud moved and stopping where it stopped. Only with Paul, replace the cloud and the fire with the Holy Spirit, a vision of a man from Macedonia (Acts 16) or even Jesus Christ giving him direction (Acts 9 – Saul’s conversion). Paul ran into Lydia by a river and Onesimus in prison. He met people like Aquila and Priscilla who were tent makers like he was. He ran into people on boats, in synagogues and in marketplaces like in Acts 19.

Church wasn’t a place to Paul…it was a people. When you see church that way…the potential for “church” is all around us…in every single person we meet lies the inherent potential for kingdom impact and growth. When you see church that way it isn’t as institutional as it is adaptable.

This doesn’t mean everyone has to be nimble or that we should all transition from whatever ministry we are doing to be church planters. James spent his whole ministry building up the church in Jerusalem…he never followed up on the rest of Acts 1:8 (Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth) but died a martyrs death still in Jerusalem where the whole thing began. He was more static than he was fluid…and he accomplished a lot as well.

We need both, while still addressing the very real imbalance
The point is we need both. The problem is not that one is more important than the other…the problem is imbalance combined with an insufficient definition of what church is. I believe the definition of “church” of the typical Christian is far more shaped by tradition than it is by scripture. This is something we need to work on and allow the New Testament room to tell a better story of what church is all about than the definitions we arrived at while preparing our talking points against other Christian groups.

So when the vast majority of what you do is static and we no longer have enough flexibility to adjust, much less a Gospel culture that was as invasive to the world around them as it was in the first century…we need to reclaim our nimbleness…our flexibility and fluidity…not to the exclusion of those who root themselves in one place for decades but in partnership with them. Some send and some go. Some plant and others water. But we are all still serving the same God and working in the same kingdom.

So what do we do about this? One word – stretch. We need to stretch our comfort zones. We need to stretch our love for God and others. We need to stretch our knowledge of scripture and the story God is telling through its pages. We won’t become fluid and nimble until we stretch. So let’s put on an audio version of the New Testament and begin our stretching routine, starting with the next person God puts in front of us.

There are a few things we wanted to make you all aware of looking ahead. First is the site. Our current site is a magazine style platform that allows us compile articles and issues together in some really great ways. The downside of the way it is structured is that RSS doesn’t recognize new articles. An additional issue has been that email subscriptions only work with posts, not articles. That is why, if you have subscribed to the site, you haven’t gotten notifications of new posts.

We are working on a new layout and new post types that will allow us to keep the magazine functionality while also getting the articles to you via email/RSS. I am sorry for any inconvenience that has caused you and I am happy to say that we are aware of this and are making the necessary changes to address it in the near future with a complete site re-design that will highlight more than just the articles but also the other features we have built and continue to build for the site. Some of the things we have included in the site are:

Job board – a place for churches to post ministry openings
Forums – a place to discuss a variety of issues
Monthly issues – just like in the past, we continue to host monthly themes that we write toward.
Archive of past issues – go and read any article from past issues of Wineskins all the way back to the beginning!

And something brand new – Commentary from our writers. We are building a scripture index of all of the posts so that if you want to see what any of our writers past or present have written on a given verse you can easily look it up.
Old Testament “commentary”
New Testament “commentary”

Thank you for reading Wineskins! Let us know if you have any feedback!

A year ago our congregation was visited by a family of five – wife, husband, and three kids. They looked like the kind of family every church secretly covets; good-looking, educated, well-ordered, and young. From all accounts they enjoyed our fellowship. They were already familiar with several members of our church and their energy was obvious. After three weeks, I felt confident they would join our congregation and mission.

They didn’t.

After three weeks, they never came back. I can’t say why they left.I suspect that after a lengthy questioning of me after worship service, I didn’t dislike the same people they disliked and I didn’t read the Christian books they read, and I didn’t listen to the same preachers they listened to.

The same event occurred when a gentleman left our congregation because he couldn’t find the Bible I preached from, The Voice, at the local Lifeway Store. What’s more, collecting the offering before the sermon was a bridge too far for him. After all, if the sermon was good that day, he might be inclined to give a little more.

If you suspect my stories are wild outliers, sit down with your preacher or church leaders and have them share a few stories of their own.

Church can be a mixed-up, confused, and debatable entity – mostly because it means so much and can mean so many different things to different people.

Standing Ovations
For most people, church is a place where particular “performances” occur – singing, preaching, communion, and, good heavens, announcements. We don’t like to call them performances, but that’s how we think of them.

Performance – in part – is why preachers podcast, worship bands record and tour, and parishioners “join” churches they “like.” Performance-thinking has almost solely produced the contemporary imagination of the American church. From the blessings and ills of mega-churches, to the rise of celebrity pastors, to conference groupies, to small church anxieties about being “good enough,” to the revolving door of church members groping for a church where they are “fed” and “fits their learning style,” American churches are experiencing performance anxiety.

In short: If we like the performance then church is a benefit, if we don’t, we’re out. Collectively, American Christians have transformed church life into an episode of Iron Chef; let’s sample the offerings then declare a winner based solely on our taste.

But our tastes are the precise disease the church exists to cure.

When the Apostle Paul speaks of church and worship, he never speaks of performance. He doesn’t even speak of membership or joining. Paul’s language is much more gritty. Paul uses the word “body.”

In Paul’s oft-quoted, but seldom lived words about worship, the Apostle connects true worship with transformation and the renewing of the mind.

“Do not allow this world to mold you in its own image. Instead, be transformed from the inside out by renewing your mind. As a result, you will be able to discern what God wills and whatever God finds good, pleasing, and complete. ”

-Romans 12:2

Over the last 20 years or so, this connection has helped many of us understand worship as more than what happens on Sunday. We eagerly proclaim that worship is connected to all of life,the day-to-day, the routine and mundane. Yet even in this acknowledgment, we somehow manage to cut Paul off at the knees and fail to grasps the deeper, more meaningful message.

For Paul, worship is not merely connected to daily actions, it’s connected to transformation and transformation is the aim of church.

He writes,

“Because of the grace allotted to me, I can respectfully tell you not to think of yourselves as being more important than you are; devote your minds to sound judgment since God has assigned to each of us a measure of faith. For in the same way that one body has so many different parts, each with different functions; we, too—the many—are different parts that form one body in the Anointed One.  Each one of us is joined with one another, and we become together what we could not be alone.”
– Romans 12:3-5

A Church At Odds

When Paul writes to churches in Rome, he pens his letter to Christians at odds. The Jewish and Gentile believers don’t care much for one another and if it were up to them they’d just as well go their own way. Like us, they’d select a church of their own liking, one, presumably, filled with folks that looked like them, talked like them, and fit their needs.

Paul is not concerned about their needs. He’s consumed with their transformation.

And before we hoop, holler, and cheer for transformation, we need to be honest and remember that when it comes to transformation, we seldom like it. We remember well our attempts at previous transformations – losing weight, getting out of debt, beginning to take God seriously, re-imagining our marriage amid hard times, readjusting to the management of our children when required, and the like.

Transformation, by its nature, is stressful, uncomfortable, and difficult. It ask us to submit to an alternative way of being — an alternative way of being that we could not and would not choose.

This being the universal case, perhaps the worst decision we can make when contemplating our church life is choosing one we like. An overweight, out-of-shape man has already chosen how many sit-ups are appropriate: None. That’s the way he stays overweight and out-of-shape.

Choosing a church (or non-church) where we “fit,” may be the strongest guarantee that we will never be asked to change. This, I suspect, is why we do it.

In church, as in the rest of life, we don’t want transformation as much as we say we do. We’d rather have comfort.

Being Church

The best thing many of us could do is envisage church as an opportunity to embrace that which is outside of us, that which does not – at least on the surface – appeal to what we already are.

Being church requires actions and activities that we wouldn’t otherwise choose. While being church, we are placed among people we might not like to participate in activities we may not choose at a time we might find inconvenient in a manner we may not fit our style, in order to become, in the words of Paul, “what we could not be alone.”

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