Friday, February 24, 2006

Why ask "Why?"

We are all theologians.

You don’t need to take a theology class at a seminary to be a theologian. We all have beliefs about God. Even atheists have a theology.

Theology is a system of beliefs and thoughts one holds regarding God and God’s interaction within our lives. Perhaps someone might say my theology is different. Some may even say that my theology is “wrong,” grounded in something reckless or beyond belief. Regardless, after much study, prayer, fasting, and discussion with other Christians, I have formed a system of beliefs about God that I stand upon. It is my theology. Yet, even my own theology is not beyond questioning.

In fact, it is by asking questions that I continue to form my theology. As a child, I am sure that I drove my Sunday school teachers mad with all kinds of strange questions about God, Jesus, and the Bible stories. Some of the answers I received were challenging and some were shallow. As I have continued to ask question, my childhood theology has shifted, blossomed, and now I can better articulate my systems of beliefs and thoughts – my theology.

Hopefully we all ask questions about God and the mysteries of our Faith. Questions help us think through some of the answers that we have been given all of our lives. Questions help us examine our beliefs and our motives for the way we think, act, and speak. Questions are good because we have a tendency to love answers. We all want answers to our questions.

We are rather uncomfortable with uncertainty. We get antsy when questions are left unanswered. However, our desire for answers often leads us to settle for something less than the whole Truth about the character and community of God. So many pastors and churches (in my experience and probably yours as well) offer “pat” answers. Today, many popular “Christian” authors offer a cotton-candy “gospel.” It is a “get-rich-quick” scheme to theology. “Pray this prayer;” “Follow these steps;” “Send a check today;” Do these things and your problems, conflicts, and question will all just disappear. These answers are not only false, but they might not even address your questions.

Simply put: Questions will either make you stretch to find clearer answers or reinforce the answers you already held. Either way, by asking questions, about even the basic tenants of our faith, we are better off for it.

Jesus knew the importance of asking questions. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is recorded to have asked 89 questions; in Matthew, 85; and in Mark, 47. When reading through the Gospels, you will encounter one question after another. Many of these questions were questions given as answers.

Jesus didn’t offer “pat” answers or easy outs. As you red through Mark, for example, you will encounter only a few occasions when Jesus did not answer the challenging questions of his rivals or disciples with a question. Often he would never answer their questions. He would leave them with their questions. And he rarely explained his teachings to the crowds. Pastor and author Stephen D. Jones writes, “Jesus shaped a questioning community, where his closest disciples felt very comfortable asking him questions and receiving his questions.”

Sure we have an answer: The Truth in the person of Jesus Christ. But we, Christians, don’t have all the answers. This is why we need theology. Theology is a mystery and it should be. We should be cautious of “easy” answers to tough questions. We should seek deeper understandings of what we think as individuals and as a community. Most important, we should never be afraid to ask, “Why?” When we settle for answers, we stop growing. Our relationship with God becomes stale. Our worship becomes predictable and routine. The fellowship in our community withers away. It is imperative that we ask questions. As Rev. Jones states, “We will find God is not only in the answers but also in the questions.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Leader or a Manager

“The persons in key positions in the United Methodist Church today are primarily managers and not leaders”
“Leaders are persons with a vision that they are able to articulate. They can name the needs, desires, and hopes of the people. They have a charisma that inspires confidence.”
“In contrast, managers accept the validity of the institutional status quo and give attention to its maintenance. They see that everything is done correctly by the proper person and consistent with precedent. In due course, the institution becomes an end in itself, rather than a means to serve a larger goal.”


Bishop Wil Willimon, with Dr. Robert Wilson of Duke University, wrote the above words in their 1987 book, Rekindling the Flame: Strategies for a Vital United Methodism.

Now I was just a kid in 1987, but I can tell that since that was written it has been a prophetic word.

I can tell that between 1987 and 2005 our beloved UMC has been good at producing managers and few leaders. In three decades how million members have been lost? How few people under the age of 35 walk through our doors? How few professions of faith and newly baptized members are we receiving each year?

I can see how some of the leaders held up by both the liberal and conservative social groups are really just managers. They spend more time and effort worrying about maintenance than vision. More time is spent debating what people do with their genitals than how we can reach out (Having gone to Confessing Movement's national conference last year -- just trust me).

I can see that the local church I serve is used to being led by a manager, not a leader. I can see in myself the desire to take the easy way out and be a manager, and not a leader.

Lord, make me a leader. If I should ever desire to become a manager inspire someone to send me an application to work at Wal-Mart. Amen.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Brian McLaren responds

I found your letter very inspiring and sad and inspiring again, all at the same time. I hope it will circulate among many Methodists so that they can get a window into one pastor’s soul. I think there are hundreds, maybe thousands, who feel the same way. If it’s any consolation, I think Wesley would share most if not all of your feelings.

Find out more at www.anewkindofchristian.com

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Help I need somebody...

I have looked at other blogs at blogger and found some things I would like to do but I don’t know how to change the html on the template. For example, I would love to have some pics in my header… much like www.anewkindofconversation.com. I can create the picture… I just don’t understand how to make the picture my header. And I can’t find any help with bloggers help pages to make that happen.

Also I have widened the header and content. It is not as narrow on the screen now. Is there a disadvantage to this? I would actually like to put in an additional sidebar on the left in which I could list my favorite posts, or picture links to different organizations. But I can’t figure out that either. And how do you post pictures in your sidebar? Do you have any suggestions on either how I can do this or how I can figure out how to do this? Perhaps you could forward me the html you use and then I can fill in the holes… that is how I can created what I have created thusfar.

Thanks for any help or point in other directions you can give.

My letter to Brian McLaren or Get a look a look at my discouragement



Mr. McLaren,
Greetings.
I am the pastor of a small United Methodist Church in the cornfields of Indiana. I graduated seminary last year and I have been in ministry for several years now. I love pastoring. Along with being a husband, father, son, and friend, I know it is why God even bothered to create me in the first place. I love the people I serve. However, I have grown bitter and cold with many people in both churches I have served (even if those in my current church aren't aware of it). I am not sure I am making any difference in their lives and in this world.

I have read both A New Kind of Christian and Generous Orthodoxy. Your books, as well as those by Robert Webber, Stanley Hauerwas, Bishop Wil Willimon, Rodney Clapp and others, have given me a new understanding of what it means to be Church. I know there are many others who share my passion. Yet, these others are not the people in my pews. And I am at a loss for what to do. I suffer the pressure of being a round peg in a square hole. I feel like Dan Poole in A New Kind of Christian. Of course, at times, I also feel like Neo, although not nearly as articulate. I am responsibe to preach the Truth about God’s story. However, I often find myself simply speaking the language of the context’s culture. My sermons are often filled with theological propositions and moral platitudes. When I do preach the counter-cultural Gospel I feel like I am looking at a deer in headlights. It is interesting because the folks I serve care about Jesus.

Part of me believes that we have just been trained for 20, 50, even 70 years or more to hear the neutered Gospel for the modern mind. Despite the cornfields, which seem to make nice walls for modernity, we still are living in a post-modern, post-Christian world. It is all around us, even in our sanctuary and hymnals, but most have a difficult time seeing it. Here modernity is less entrenched, more engrained. In the polity of the United Methodist Church I am not convinced there is a cure for this problem. I could very well ask for a re-appointment. Yet, I have doubts that a church exists in my (or any) conference of our denomination that is ready to take the plunge into post-modern ministry and living (and that’s what it is… not just post-modern worship but a post-modern way of life).

One solution suggested by a professor I respect is to start over. He proposes that we, in the younger generation who are tired of the church created by traditional evangelicals and pragmatic-“contemporary”-style baby boomers, should take a risk and put it all on the line. In my previous church, I did decide to let it all hang out. Dan Poole’s fears came true, as described in your book. My poor attempt of explaining the context of this problem caused nothing but division, hard-feelings, and re-appointment. Personally, this lead to depression, disillusionment about the church, and discouragement about my place in God’s family, let alone God’s church.

My conclusion: I must compromise my convictions about the Gospel in order to get anything done in Jesus’ name. And I live with this everyday. I can hear my bishop appropriately and compassionately saying, “Chris, the people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I am not sure that preaching a false, Americanized, propositional, feel-good Gospel is the best way to care for the church. And I know it is not how we can best care for the world. The world needs the church to be the Church! This is what I know and how I care.

I am not sure why I am writing this. I am confident that among the hundreds (if not thousands) of e-mails you will not even read mine. But I wanted to tell you a bit of my story and seek to encourage you. I do love being a pastor. I love the United Methodist Church. And most importantly I love Jesus Christ and I know he loves me. And thanks to you and the people like you who affirm who I am and what I want to say about God, I will continue to risk the depression, disillusionment, and discouragement. I will continue to care for my flock. I will continue to be “blossom where planted.” And I will continue to prepare myself for the day when the Church, the United Methodist Church particularly, is ready to impact the world for Christ by being relevant to a new generation of people.

In Christ’s Peace and Service,

[For more on Brian McLaren see http://www.anewkindofchristian.com]

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

On the Quad and the primacy of Scripture

The United Methodist Church holds that Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason are sources and norms for belief and practice, but that the Bible is primary among them. What is your understanding of this theological position of the Church?
n n n
Everyone has a theology. Whether our theology is systematically stated or implied in our everyday, unthinking action, every person has formed an understanding of the divine. Even atheism is a theology. Often our theology is formed over time. Our thoughts, actions, and conversations influence our beliefs. But for Christians, particularly those of us called United Methodists, we affirm that Scripture, tradition, experience and reason are sources and norms for our belief and practice in the Christian life. Furthermore, while all four sources are important in creating, understanding, and explaining our faith Scripture is primary among them.

Scripture has a primary function as it, “containith all things necessary for salvation.”[1] Scripture reveals to us the story of Jesus. We can learn about the historical and theological implications of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus through the writings in the Gospels. Through Scripture we can learn about God’s Grace and salvation.

Furthermore, Scripture is more than what the Church has reduced the Bible to be in the modern age. Systematic theologies and formulaic propositions fall short in explaining the depth of Scripture. These understandings of Scripture will prove completely unproductive in reaching the Biblically illiterate and un-churched people in my generation and future generations. Instead, Scripture reveals to us the heart of the Divine who desires to be in communion with God’s creation. It is crucial to our identity as a community of faith.

Through Scripture we can relate our lives in the scope of Christian history to the lives of those who lived out their faith in the stories told through Scripture. The stories of Scripture remind us that we are the continuation of that story. The Ascension of Jesus is not the end of the story of the Savior. The conclusion of Acts is not the end of the story of the Church. These stories continue today through us. We must have Scripture as a primary source from which to understand our faith and shape our daily living. If Christ lives in us, as St. Paul says in Galatians 2:20 and we are to live as Jesus, we must know what Jesus did, said, and felt while He walked this earth. I agree with Professor Ted Peters when he says in his book God—The World’s Future, “Because we have little access to Jesus and his significance that is independent of canonical Scripture, we must think of the Bible as the indispensable criterial source for the living tradition of God’s word.”[2] Yet, while primary, Scripture is not the only source of authority in crafting our theology and faith.

Tradition also is important. Tradition informs us of the role of the Church and each member of the Church. We can carry-on those beliefs and practice which tradition has given us from times past. These time-tested beliefs and practices are important because they too relate us to the story in the span of time. It is within Christian tradition that we can find identity. Without tradition anyone can assert any kind of opinion, belief, or doctrine. Tradition helps us better understand the ability of our beliefs and practices to pass the test of time. As we affirm our tradition we identify with the Church throughout the ages. To reject tradition is to reject the facts and facets of our history within the faith community.

We also need reason. St. Paul writes in Romans 12 that part of our worship of God involves the renewing of our minds. As our faith is holistic, it is important that we use our minds to praise our Lord and Savior. Further, we, as Christians, should confront pastors and other Christians who hold beliefs without reason. Perhaps, for some, tradition is the only source for a certain belief or practice. Perhaps, others believe something is good or bad simply because that is the way Grandpa did it and any other reason is beyond articulation. But with reason we can confirm and defend the core of our Christian faith. There is interplay between Scripture, tradition and experiences that is filtered through a reasoning process. If we have a belief or practice that is not upheld by Scripture, tradition, or experience, then perhaps we had better rethink our participation in that particular belief or practice. Reason is central to our faith.

Finally, experience is also a significant source of our belief and practice because it vivifies everything else that is important to our faith. Scripture is primary; it reveals to us the story of God and the faith of Jesus and the believers in the Biblical times. Tradition illumines that identity for us today. Reason helps us to confirm why we believe what we believe. However, without experience the rest is useless. According to Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials, “Wesley valued experience especially as human contact with God, and he believed that our experience of the divine also illumined our own spiritual quest and (combined with reason) could clarify the meaning of the Bible.”[3]

Without experience, the primacy and the sufficiency of Scripture no longer matter because the Bible is simply a book of stories frozen in time. Without experience, tradition is simply routine. Without experience we have nothing to reason. Experience is paramount because it is the time and space in which we encounter God working through the other core values of our faith. It is our experience that enables us to relate to one another today and to the stories and symbols of Scripture and tradition. It is within my context of life that I will experience God in these other three sources.

In conclusion, more important than anything said above, our faith and theology as Christians are relational. Not reason, experience, tradition, nor even the Bible are ends in themselves; they are simply means to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Christianity is above all about living our lives with an accessible and ongoing relationship with the One True God. The “quadrilateral” should help us to this end.

[1] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. in Articles of Religion, Article V. (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2000) 60.
[2] Ted Peters. God—The World’s Future: Systematic Theology for a New Era. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000) 55.
[3] Ted Campbell. Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999) 39.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

How do you understand the following traditional evangelical doctrine: sanctification? What are the marks of the Christian life?

It is obvious that both the doctrine of sanctification and the marks of the Christian life are directly related. The Bible uses many words and phrases to depict sanctification. For example, throughout his epistles Paul illustrates sanctification by stating, “we put off the old self and put on the new self.” House codes are created; certain behavior is expected; lists of “do’s” and “don’ts” are passed on by Paul. Yet, lest we fall into the trap of legalism and the creation of a new Law, we must understand that sanctification is not of our own doing but once again simply the act of God’s sovereign power.

It is through sanctifying grace that we are strengthened by God to do God’s will and pursue God’s calling. Justification is always accompanied by sanctification. The Holy Spirit empowers us to work out our own salvation. This is where the “rubber” of our theology meets the “road” of our ethics; what we believe and how we behave come head to head. Article 10 “Of Good Works” in the Articles of Religion states good works are “pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ and spring out of true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree is discerned by its fruit.”[1] As we are sanctified, the fruit of the Spirit become more evident in our daily lives.

God’s sanctification involves a transformation of our wills and affections. Wesley explains that the marks of the new birth are “faith, hope, and love.”[2] Through this new faith, hope, and love we have in Christ we will desire to be restored into the image of God—the desire to do and love what God does and loves. Wesley understood this path of sanctification as our striving for perfection. Sanctification involves personal and moral conversion and social and communal transformation. John Wesley preached, “Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.”[3] The marks of the Christian life will demonstrate the communal importance of our personal relationship with God.

Each of these doctrines also has a practical outcome. It is not enough to simply believe them; we must practice them. If we believe prevenient grace exists in all of God’s creation, then we will have a different respect for members of our family, our neighbors, our environment, and even our enemies. Because we believe people are justified by faith in Christ alone evangelism becomes a priority. As we witness others being baptized and remember our own baptisms, we will praise God for regenerating and transforming our lives and our world, giving us a second chance to get right with God and with each other. Finally, we will seek to be sanctified by God as we work with the Holy Spirit to bring about God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”

[1] The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. (Nashville, The United Methodist Publishing House, 2004) 62.
[2] Ibid. pgs. 173-182.
[3] Outler, 195.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

How do you understand the following traditional evangelical doctrine: regeneration?

Through the mighty acts of Jesus Christ, we who repent and are justified are given “new life.” This act of new life is regeneration. Regeneration remains somewhat of a mystery, yet is very real. We are “born again” as Jesus explained to Nicodemus in John 3. Jesus said we are born again “by water and Spirit.” For Wesley, just as for Jesus, regeneration is intimately connected with baptism.

Further, the doctrine of regeneration can be defined as it was for Wesley as The Circumcision of the Heart. In a sermon by that name, Wesley states that circumcision of the heart is “a right state of soul—a mind and spirit renewed after the image of him that created it—is one of those important truths that can be ‘spiritually discerned.’”[1] The fact of the matter is that, like Nicodemus, I could voice skepticism by saying that I have never seen anyone “born again.” I could object to regeneration as a “circumcised heart” for I have never seen such an organ. Yet, the mystery that is regeneration is part of what we believe as Christians. By faith I believe these are metaphors for something real.

[1] Albert C Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrader, eds. John Wesley: An Anthology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984) 24.

Monday, February 06, 2006

How do you understand the following traditional evangelical doctrines: repentance and justification?

My understanding of repentance begins with a Wesleyan understanding of the doctrine of prevenient grace. In his sermon, On Working Out Our Own Salvation, John Wesley summarizes prevenient grace by stating, “Salvation begins with … the first wish to please God, the first light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him. All of these imply some tendency toward life, some degree of salvation, the beginning of a deliverance from a blind unfeeling heart.” Grace initially comes to prepare our hearts and minds for a relationship with God and the Church. God’s Grace is given to every human being; it is universally operational. Repentance hinges on both our recognition and confession that we are in need of salvation (accepting that we cannot save ourselves), as well as the desire to have salvation and liberation (justification through the saving work of Jesus Christ). This realization and awakening, which leads to repentance for the forgiveness of sins, is only initiated by God’s prevenient grace.

Article 9 of the Articles of Religion states, “We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our own works or deserving. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith, only, is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort.”[1] Justification is God’s gift to us—a divine response to our awakening and confession. Our Wesleyan understanding of the “traditional evangelical doctrine” of justification is that God’s justifying grace is available to all who call upon God. We affirm salvation is by faith alone and therefore is the theological opposite of “works-righteousness.” We can do no good on our own and the forgiveness of sins and the healing of our wounds comes only as a gift of God through Jesus Christ for those who have faith. This is far beyond our deserving. It is truly a display of God’s sovereign power. In Romans 4 Paul writes, “[Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.”

[1] The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. (Nashville, The United Methodist Publishing House, 2004) 61.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Christian Football in overtime

(thanks to my friends at the Webboard for these)
UNSPORTSMANLIKE CONDUCT: The lady that always dresses a little skimpy.

OFFSIDES: When a newcomer sits in a regular's "reserved" seat.

DELAY OF GAME: The reading of business announcements between "welcome" and "let's share our joys and concerns"

ILLEGAL PROCEDURE: Any change to the service made by a new pastor

INTERFERENCE: "BUT WE'VE ALWAYS DONE IT THIS WAY" (see preceding entry)

OFF SEASON: Summer services overtime: when the pastor is especially long winded

PAS RUSH: Communion on an important game day

SQIB KICK: Pitch for pledge card return during "delay of game"

SUICIDE SQUAD/SPECIAL TEAMS: Bell choir ladies begging for more ringers

PASS INTERFERENCE: When the congregant tries to hand the offering plate over a small child

PERSONAL FOUL: When the kiddies can't keep their bowels in check

SIDELINE WARNING: When the pastor uses too many example from his personal life

RUNNING INTO THE KICKER: The altar call

END AROUND: When the offering plate gets to the end of the pew and no usher to be found. Rarely happens but sometimes works just fine.

AUDIBLE: What the lady at church who is half deaf and sings louder than one section of the church is

Thursday, February 02, 2006

In honor of Superbowl Sunday: Christian Football

(I only wrote a coupla these)
QUARTERBACK SNEAK: Church members quietly leaving during the invitation.

DRAW PLAY: What many children do with the bulletin during worship.

HALF-TIME: The period between Sunday School and worship when many choose to leave.

BENCHWARMER: Those who do not sing, pray, work, or apparently do anything but sit.

BACKFIELD-IN-MOTION: The members in the back pew get up and leave during the closing hymn and avoid speaking to any guests or fellow members after the service.

CHALLENGE: The reason the congregants want their pastor to stop preaching the Gospel and start preaching like Joel Osteen.

STAYING IN THE POCKET: What happens to a lot of money that should be given to
the Lord's work.

TWO-MINUTE WARNING: The point at which you realize the sermon is almost over and begin to gather up your children and belongings.

INSTANT REPLAY: You wake up and ask your wife what the preacher just said.

SUDDEN DEATH: What happens to the attention span of the congregation if the preacher goes “overtime.”

TRAP: The pastor stands at the doorway (the only way out) and you know she is going to ask you to be on a committee.

FLEX DEFENSE: The ability to allow absolutely nothing said during the Scripture reading or sermon to affect your life.

HALFBACK OPTION: The decision of 80% of the congregation to come only on Sunday.

ROUGHING THE PASSER: The “Bible-know-it-all” corners the pastor after church to question her message, particularly on tithing, service, and charity.

BLITZ: The rush for the restaurants following the benediction.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

What is your understanding of eternal life?

Eternal life is a popular topic in our churches today. In fact, anything that deals with the after-life is popular because of recent books and studies into eschatology and our continued fascination with angels and what lies beyond. While I do not subscribe to the relatively recent teachings of Darby, Scofield, or LaHaye, teaching on these topics is just as important now as ever. In the midst of all the confusion, Christians need to have a clear understanding of eternal life.

In the Apostle’s Creed we affirm our belief in “life everlasting.” Further, we affirm that Christ “will come again to judge the quick and the dead.” Eternal life with God will be a joy. Those who believe in Jesus and accept the provision of Christ will be with God in the heavenly kingdom for life everlasting. Conversely, though it is not as fashionable to our modern sensitivities, we in the United Methodist Church affirm that there is judgment reserved for the “wicked” in the form of “endless condemnation.” Christians are called to witness to the saving power found in Jesus Christ and a life lived transformed by the Holy Spirit.

A statement I heard often in my childhood years at a Southern Baptist Church was to make sure we knew we had eternal life. Eternal life is an important theological issue to understand, yet it is dangerous to get too caught up considering eternal life. As the story of “The Rich Young Ruler” illustrates, it is irresponsible, as a Christian, to simply sit around and ponder what lies beyond and where his or her soul may be heading. Eternal life guaranteed by Jesus begins now with the abundant life given by Jesus. Eschatologies which are escapist can lead to a sense of hopelessness and even abandonment. A theology of eternal life should emphasize the hope we have in Christ and the preparation of God’s just society.

Recognizing Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, we should seek first the kingdom of God and then pursue our call to help God bring about that kingdom in the now. It is important that we help God answer our prayer to have “life on earth as it is in heaven.” We do this by working to ensure people everywhere have food, clothing, shelter, and comfort. It is possible to offer this to the world, because Christ died and was raised and sits with God. As our friend and our provider, God will meet our needs and care for our hurts. God will use us to defeat death and sin today and in the life to come.
Cost of the War in Iraq
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