Monday, December 7, 2009

Keeping the 'X' in Xmas

When it comes to Advent, I have never really experienced such a general blanket of misunderstandings concerning something that so many people confidently believe they know.  The more years I teach on advent and the birth of Jesus, the more I realize that the majority of Christians not only aren't sure what advent is really about, we also haven't the faintest clue about what the Bible really narrates about the birth of Jesus.

I will begin writing a series of posts concerning the season of Advent and the birth narratives of Jesus according to the Gospels.  I am really looking forward to writing these so please keep reading!

But first - here's something I wrote (with a couple revisions) and posted on facebook on December 14, 2006.

Okay, you caught me, and yes, I am guilty. I am one of “those people" who writes X-Mas instead of Christmas. Now, before I am thrown to the dogs of blasphemy and heresy, I feel compelled to make my case. You see when people write X-Mas, they are not “taking Christ out of Christmas". Instead, this is actually a Greek X (Chi) which is the first letter (or initial ) of Christ in Greek; Christos, meaning “anointed". Thus, we both are keeping Christ in Christmas. The Church uses initials as symbols like this quite frequently, like the IHS that can be found sporadically throughout our own sanctuary. These are the first three Roman transliterations of Jesus’ name in Greek; Ἰησοῦς (iota, eta, sigma).

This Advent, I pray we as the body of Christ can focus on what is important to the season, even if this means halting the quarrel between those who sign Merry Christmas versus Merry X-Mas. I fully agree, let us keep Christ in Christmas, but let us do so understanding that this means offering patience and love towards our neighbors, as Christ would have wanted us to.  And, in keeping Christ in Christmas, this has nothing to do with giving gifts, trees with glass ornaments, or who has the most lights in the neighborhood.  It's time to remember and be changed by the fact that...

God is with us.  

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"Cheap Grace"

I love this quote I found from my daily emailed wisdom from Richard Rohr.

"It is finally truthful action that sets us free for God, not true words in our head, which ask very little of us in terms of actual trust or surrender.  We can believe all the doctrines of the church perfectly and never trust God or love one human being."

It would definitely be unfair to say that all churches or christians have an issue with this, but we've all met people who, unfortunately, either refuse to recognize this or simply do not understand that there's a problem.

As is noted in Brian McLaren's book, Finding Our Way Again, the problem is created when Christianity is more thought of as a system of beliefs instead of a way of life.  When we approach Christianity in this way, is taught to us in this way, and accepted as simply a system of beliefs, we become completely disconnected from the movement Jesus started and Paul brought to the gentiles.  It is honestly inconceivable to me that one could read the New Testament and not walk away with the understanding that full participation in the Jesus movement means a new way life.

I believe we can point to numerous reasons to how this became a problem for Christianity, such as the growing want for an agreed upon orthodoxy and the creeds that hence followed in the first centuries after the death of Jesus (these in themselves are not bad).  But, I would like to focus on what I believe is a grave problem for modern Christianity:  Our doctrines of grace and salvation (which are good!) have overshadowed our understanding of the Kingdom of God.  We have focused so much on the fact that grace cannot and is not earned that we have lost sight that there are still responsibilities in regard to the Kingdom of God.  I won't be able to quote this verbatim, but I remember Dallas Willard writing in The Great Omission something to the sort of, "Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning."  Or, maybe you would rather prefer here Bonhoeffer's cheap vs. costly grace; cheap grace being "grace without discipleship...".

Grace is given unconditionally, but to act on behalf of God's Kingdom and to work for it, there are conditions.  Somehow, though, we've taught and believed in "cheap grace" for so long that for so many Christians, following Jesus has become about what we believe instead of how we live.

We need to come to healthy understandings of discipleship where there is not a "this or that" mentality here. Instead, we should allow our beliefs as Christians to drastically change the way we live, and allow grace to work constantly through this process as we fail and try and try again.

Christianity is a way of life and a particular set of beliefs that shape the way we live.  My prayer is that Christians can find this healthy balance, and we can lose our tendencies to not let our beliefs affect the way we live.  Jesus followers are supposed to be different and, as I like to say, - smell different.  There's something different about a person whose life is lived everyday through the cross.  They are broken and aware of the pain of God's creation.  They are hopeful and are at peace inside because of the promises of God.  And it is clear from the way that they live, they are bleeding a raw, and unrefined love for God and all of God's people.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Midweek Mess - Things of Note from the Past Week (11.11.2009)

Hey all - some links I'd think you'd enjoy checking out.  I'd love to get some discussion rolling from any of these!  Hope you're all having a great week.

We should be listening to everything Chris Seay has to say.  Here's a great article he recently wrote, and a video below that should get us thinking.

You've got to hear this sermon from Efrem Smith.  Listen beginning to end - You won't regret it!
Here's the Quicktime Video of the sermon.

Brian McLaren's new book!

A book burning?  You've got to read this, you won't know whether to laugh or cry.

Ok - that's all I've got for now!

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Prayer for Monday.

It's a bit nostalgic right now, staring out the window of a coffee shop near the neighborhood I spent the majority of my childhood.  Its strange to ponder where all the years have gone and how every childhood experience seemed to help shape me into the person I am today.  Being here makes me feel small.  Feeling small helps me to realize God's greatness and his whispering presence that's been in my life from the beginning.

Anyway, here's a prayer for Monday (NRSV Philippians 2.6-8) ...

Lord God, let us have the same mind as Jesus - 

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death - 

even death on a cross.

Thank you Jesus.  For only through your sacrifice am I able to live fully as a child of God.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Issues With Church: 2 - Tithing

How most Christians view tithing is strange to me.  As a kid growing up in church, I always wondered specifically how the 10% number happened to fall out of the sky and out of people’s checkbooks.  As it turns out, its from the Bible.  The word tithe in Hebrew actually means “the tenth part of”.  Here are a couple passages that deal with tithing in the Hebrew Bible (all Bible references are NRSV).

leviticus 27.30-33
30All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord. 31If persons wish to redeem any of their tithes, they must add one-fifth to them. 32All tithes of herd and flock, every tenth one that passes under the shepherd’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord. 33Let no one inquire whether it is good or bad, or make substitution for it; if one makes substitution for it, then both it and the substitute shall be holy and cannot be redeemed.
Numbers 18.21-32
21To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for a possession in return for the service that they perform, the service in the tent of meeting...
From what I can tell, these and other passages in the Hebrew Bible indicate that a tithe was distributed for the Levites, the poor, or the monarchy.  
But maybe you’re asking the same questions as I am.  When we give 10% of our income to the church, are we doing what the Bible requires of us?  I would argue - not exactly.  The church today doesn’t use the services of Levite priests and the services of our clergy today are not even closely related to those of the Levites.  
Besides all of this, is there evidence in the New Testament that followers of Jesus gave a tenth of their resources?  The simplest and straight forward answer I can give is - no.  I may be completely wrong, but I can find nothing in the Bible that suggests that Jesus followers are required to take part in the tithing laws of the Torah.
Here’s what the New Testament says: 
Mark 12.41-44
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
1 Corinthians 16:1-4 speaks about a collection for “the saints” (i.e. believers) and specifically mentions putting aside “whatever extra you earn” for that collection.  Notice, here, this is not a specific amount of money such as a tenth.
2 Corinthians 8 and 9 are also about the collection of money.  Specifically 9.6-7 reads, “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
In Acts chapter 5 we can read the story of Ananias and Sapphira.  The husband and wife both dramatically die because they held back only “some” of the money they acquired from selling a piece of land from the apostles.  
From scripture then, we can read that the requirements for Jesus followers to give is not  akin to the tithe that the Hebrew Bible requires of Israelites.  Surely, collection in the early church was still gathered to help fund the spreading of the Jesus movement and to help the poor.  I believe our churches do a fair job of using the resources its received to spread the Jesus movement in the communities where we exist, but I think we all need to take a much deeper look at how much money our churches spend on behalf of the poor.
Matthew 23.23 (also see parallel verse Luke 11.42)
23“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.
These strong words from Jesus clearly reflect those from the prophet Amos in Amos 4.4-5.  In my own words what these verses tell is- we can give and tithe all we want, but if we neglect the needs of the poor and neglect matters of the heart, our sacrifice is not acceptable to God.  
So, I believe that we scriptures tell us at least two basic things about how followers of Jesus should give.
  1. As my wife likes to say - “Give until it hurts”.  Followers of Jesus do not give out of their abundance but out of their poverty.  The call of a Christ follower is not to give until we reach 10%.  In fact, if we are using a percentage marker to gauge where we start and stop giving, then we are not being cheerful givers who give because of the joy it brings to God and in return to us.  Instead, percentage based giving can hinder God from moving through our lives and the resources he’s blessed us with directly to those who are in need.  Always remember - a sacrifice pleasing and acceptable to God is not monetary, but rather is a broken and contrite heart.  If our hearts are fully broken before the God then we’ve handed over the pieces of our lives to God in admittance that we cannot put them back together.  The puzzle is too difficult for us to finish and there are too many missing pieces.  Only when we enter this place can we realize that we have nothing and we are nothing without the love of God.  It is here that we can learn to give freely, joyfully, and out of our poverty.  
  2. Remember the poor.  If somehow we can learn to give out of our poverty we can learn to meet the needs of other’s poverty. If our giving is not reaching the poor, we participate in injustice.  If our giving ignores the poor, we help spread injustice in the Kingdom of God.  If our sacrifices do not even take into consideration the needs of the poor, then our giving is in vain and not pleasing to God.  We should all reevaluate how our resources reach the poor, even if our giving goes directly to the church.  Churches (which are people) have a deep responsibility to meet the needs of the poor.  How much of your church's income is distributed in resources for the poor, as opposed to spent on itself? 

Never forget that these two ideas must work together at all times.  We can give to the poor often, but if our hearts are not broken in humility towards towards the greatness of God, then our giving can and most likely is in vain.  But in return, if our hearts are far from God, but we are good at going through the motions of being a Christian, we’d probably want to take a closer look at humbling ourselves by finding out how much we’re using our resources to help the poor. 

Monday, November 2, 2009

Issues With Church: 1 - Prayer

So here are my thoughts on prayer.  I don't so much have an issue with prayer, but rather with conceptions (or misconceptions) about prayer.  My personal thoughts on prayer are messy, and I'm sure sometimes not reasoned well.  Nonetheless, my faith is messy, and the further I go on this journey following Jesus I have more and more questions, and less and less answers.  I need grace.  I know there are numerous different types of prayer and this post certainly isn't addressing all of them.

At most churches, caring congregation members can easily find a list of the church's prayer requests.  If we're going to be honest, there is a problem with most of our lists.  Most (granted, not all) prayers submitted for addition to these lists are viewed as the result of something that "happened" to someone, seemingly taking the responsibility off of the person being prayed for or there is no association of wrong doing with what "happened".  While we pray for things like John's broken wrist (which I'm not saying is bad), our prayer lists are usually ignoring the issues in people's lives that drastically, immediately, and sometimes eternally effect their soul's well-being.

The reason?  In all the churches I have ever been a part of we have a difficult time seeking counsel and help for problems that carry social stigmas with them.  I'm not saying there's not a right time and place for confessing sins or asking for prayer for bad situations.  I don't even think its necessarily a bad thing that churches have a public and a private list of prayer requests.  The issue I have is that a consistent line is drawn between the types of problems put on our lists.

Maybe we have this idea that there is an unspoken rule for public prayer request lists in churches.  But as the church should pray for John's blood pressure, shouldn't we also be praying for Susan's anger issues?  Or what about Bob's depression and loneliness because of his broken marriage and relationship with his kids?  And what about Tony's (I am having trouble making up random generic names here) problems with finances caused by reckless spending and poor credit card use?

Granted, I fully understand, as did Wesley, that one's physical well being directly effects their spiritual well-being.  But it would seem, to me at least, that issues such as these that can painstakingly effect our relationships with God, are just as important for the church at large to be fervently praying (James 5.17) for - if not possibly more important - as one's spiritual well-being is, in the end, what God is concerned with.  If we only pray for the things in each other's lives that carry no weight of responsibility, we run the serious risk of Jesus labeling us "hypocrite".  Our attempts to hide our deepest struggles behind our "Sunday Best" can only result in anxiety, pride, and in the end, shallowness of faith.

To many like myself, when churches approach prayer in this manner, it comes across as inauthentic or not genuine.  And the larger problem for churches here is that, personally, I believe a lack of genuineness is one of the main reasons that drives Jesus seekers in my generation out of the church because we crave authentic relationships and community working together for the purposes of God's Kingdom.  If we honestly can't find that in the local church, I hope that the Spirit will help us to find it elsewhere.

This is just the beginning of my problems with prayer.  I'll post more issues I have later.  In the meantime though, I hope we keep praying for people on our church's prayer request lists, and we take more time to thank the people who spend time putting these lists together for our congregations.  And, yes, I will keep praying.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Fun: Videos I Think You'll Enjoy...

Hope you find these as funny as I did...

And I thought this would be as nostalgic for some of you as it was for me...

Also - here's imonk's "Halloween Rant".  Hope everyone has a happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Circumcision and the Church

I had just finished up leading a Bible Study last week on “The Allegory of Hagar and Sarah” in Galatians 4. As soon as the students left that morning I opened up my google reader to submerge myself into the blogosphere. Coincidentally, Peter Rollins had a post about what he called the "Circumcision Question”. If you do not know who Peter Rollins is, I highly recommend reading anything he writes. He is one of the most forward thinking Christians I’ve ever had the opportunity to come across. Anyways, in this post he draws a somewhat forgotten line from the earliest church’s debates over circumcision to what the problem equates to for the community of Jesus followers today.

After Paul had left the Galatian church, new persons arrived claiming to the gentile church that they were welcomed into the covenant of the Israelites through the messiah as Paul had claimed, so long as they followed the Mosaic Law and hence became circumcised. Needless to say, Paul found out about this and not only disagreed, but was also unhappy with the situation. The letter to the churches of Galatia is what followed as Paul’s response to this problem.

What we read specifically in Paul’s allegory of chapter 4 is that gentile Jesus followers have a choice: they can either be slaves to the law or free through “ working (or made effective) through love” (5.6 NRSV). At first glance, its tough to find the relevancy for Jesus followers today, especially since we don’t happen to be debating or discussing issues of circumcision often in our gatherings. But in reality, as a church we are still deeply struggling with the concept of what is necessary to fully participate in life as a Jesus follower (and a community of Jesus followers) and what is not necessary. “Not necessary” can be misleading here though, because not only was circumcision not necessary, but it was also, according to Paul, a direct hindrance to fully living for the purposes of the Kingdom of God.

So let’s struggle openly, as the early church did only a couple decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus, with what Rollins so wisely calls the “Circumcision Question”. What are the essential misguidings of the church today that bind Jesus followers to the yoke of slavery (5.1) instead of the freedom for which Christ came?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Midweek Mess - Things of Note from the Past Week

Hey All,

We'll do this each week, but here are some things I think are worth checking out from the blogs that I enjoy following!

Peter Rollins on the 'Circumcision Question'

A pretty solid argument from the Bible for Women in Ministry. This was a good read.

A great article from the OOZE on mistakes that churches must avoid.

Hope you enjoy!

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Not So New Endeavor...

Although I know that I am a week late, I realized that the yearly Torah reading schedule just started over. So, as I did last year at this time, I plan to attempt to read the Torah in a year's time but this time getting past Exodus. If you're interested, here you can find some info on the weekly readings as well as the reading schedule.

I love disciplined reading schedules. They help to keep me focused on actually reading scripture instead of relying on my "feelings" to not only motivate me to read but to find the "right" passages to read. Sure, there's benefit to allowing the Holy Spirit to teach me and lead me through scripture seemingly randomly. The honest of those of us who choose to read scripture in this manner can admit that the motivation to read is difficult to maintain, and thus this reading plan over long periods of time bears little fruit.

But there's also so much wisdom to allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through a planned out reading schedule as well, not to mention the communal benefits of reading along with the Jewish faith community . Since I'm sure I'm in the same boat as everyone in wanting to read more scripture than I am currently doing, why not add a planned reading schedule to my current random reading? Plus, who doesn't love the stories that the Torah provides. Feel free to join me in reading the Torah for the next year. We're already into Noah (Genesis 6:9-11:32), so now's a great time to start reading along!