Monday, 8 September 2014

The Institutional Church's Unlikely Visitor: Me


"You, my brothers, were called to be free." (Galatians 5:13)

I did something last Sunday that I haven’t done in perhaps ten to twelve years; I attended an institutional church service.

Not only did I attend an institutional church service, but I attended a service very different than one I have ever attended before, other than perhaps one or two times.

On the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (I know that because it was printed in their bulletin), my wife and I went to an institutional church service that, while “Baptist” in name, could very well have been confused with an Anglican church based upon the liturgical style.

In this worship service we followed a strictly outlined order of service which included rising from our pews and standing on cue, as indicated by a printed asterisk symbol in front of the service heading. We rose to our feet for the invocation and reciting of the Lord’s Prayer, singing of hymns, and to the reciting of the “Gloria Patri,” which for those not familiar with it states,
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.
Amen”
We had Scripture readings and sang hymns. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the beautiful choir arrangements; the opening “Introit” especially brought shivers down my spine. Conspicuously absent were any modern instruments; no guitars, no electronic keyboards, no drums, no worship team; only a pianist and professional organist. Also absent were any modern choruses.

As I thought about that, I remember thinking how interesting it is that we often stereotype such “non-modern” expressions of faith as relevant only to the elderly, or those who embrace some strange utopian 1950’s version of what constitutes “church,” for who but the elderly would be into that style? Yet as I looked around me, yes, I noticed some elderly folks, but I also noticed many more adherents who were young couples, families, and school-aged children. Clearly, it was anything but stereotypical, as evidenced by such things as semi-shaved hairstyles, to multiple earrings in the ears of the black gown-clad senior pastor, to fashion that included everything from blue jeans to bow tie to somewhere in between.

I listened to the first in what we were told would be a 36-week sermon series. I participated in “Communion” as they passed the bread and the cup. My son (who invited us to his church) later asked me how long it’s been since I participated in that style of Communion service. In truth, I didn’t know, as I’ve long since understood Communion a little differently. Still it was, to use modern verbiage, “all-good.”

Then, after the offering plate was passed, we rose to our feet again on cue and sang the “Doxology,”
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him all creatures here below;
Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.”
This was followed by another congregational hymn singing, which in turn was followed by the “Sending of the Community;” in which the leader proclaimed, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you.” Then on cue (as instructed in our printed order of service), the people in the congregation replied, “And also with you.” A blessing followed, and then a postlude, and we were essentially dismissed. Despite the service being officially over, we mingled for about half to three-quarters of an hour before leaving the building.

So, are you shocked by all of this?

Anyone who has perhaps followed this blog for the past few years might possibly be. After all, I have been known to slam institutional church systems a time or ten. In a way I was briefly amazed myself that I should find myself there at all, and yet despite all the little idiosyncrasies, I felt strangely comfortable and at peace there. Even my wife mentioned how much she enjoyed the service and “needed” to be there that Sunday.

Perhaps God had us exactly where He wanted us that Sunday.

Having said all that, does this mean that we have re-institutionalized ourselves? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. We still love the Christian relationships we have built outside of the traditional institutional church, and we have no intention on giving up on those. Still, if the Spirit leads, I think I can speak for both my wife and myself and say that from time to time, we could also easily step into an institutional church and fellowship with others there as well. As a matter of fact, I now fully intend on visiting other Christian communities from time to time, as the Lord may lead me to. Could it be that maybe it’s time to bridge the gap between institutional and non-institutional Christians? I wonder.

I am reminded of what the Apostle Paul once said,
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and in all” (Ephesians 4: 3-6; NIV).
Was Christ crucified only for your little sect? Was He crucified only for my little sect? (I deliberately use the word “sect,” for no other word seems to describe what we often seem to have become as well as the word “sect” does). Of course not! For that little institutional church, be they conservative/charismatic, liberal/liturgical, or somewhere in between; are no less sons and daughters of the most high God than Christians who choose to fellowship outside of any institutional church are. The fact is, we are all brothers and sisters, regardless how we choose to worship our great God. The only problem is, some of us either are, or have turned other siblings into, black sheep. And that is really quite sad.

Freedom

Perhaps the greater sin in our respective “Christian” walks would be to fail to recognize that and keep those walls firmly erected between us. If God doesn’t make distinctions, apart from those who do or don’t acknowledge His Son, then dare we? If we dare not, then shouldn't we busy ourselves with tearing down the walls that separate us? Come to think of it, even Jesus himself prayed about that very thing (John 17).

Yes, my reintroduction to institutional Christianity was semi-liturgical, and generally speaking I’m not, but they most certainly were brothers and sisters in Jesus, and ultimately, that’s all that matters. Next time I’m in town on a Sunday, I’m sure I will go visit that little inner-city (Baptist?) church again. After all, if I left feeling blessed and in complete peace this last Sunday, why wouldn’t I go back?

Peace and Blessings, from a (temporarily?) re-institutionalized brother.

Photo Credit: Doevos, Flickr Creative Commons

Saturday, 16 August 2014

IF: Guilt's Little Cousin?


“If you (heart)
Jesus, repost.”

I don't know about you, but this has got to be one of my greatest social media pet peeve’s that I see out there time after time, and which has bothered me for a very long time. Bear with me as I rant a little. First of all let me be clear about something. This has nothing to do with whether or not I love Jesus; I do love Jesus, and I often do post things that reflect that love.

The problem, the way I see it, is the attached innuendo.

The problem is the “IF” this, then that statement. “IF” I love Jesus, then I will do something, which in this case is, repost. The innuendo then implies, “IF” I do not repost, then I must not love Jesus.

We see this all the time. Another post I saw recently stated:
Share "IF" you have the greatest son or daughter.
All nice and sweet, right? Who in their right mind wouldn’t admit that? I think I do have the greatest son and daughter any man could ever wish for, and as such I consider myself blessed. So what’s the problem?

The problem is, again, the message’s innuendo: “IF” you choose not to share, then you’re essentially saying that you do not think that you have the greatest son and daughter.

Do you see what I'm trying to say?

Why do (some) Christians do this? Another related common thinking is that, “IF” you are a Christian, then you will go to church … or tithe … or speak in tongues … or have a ministry, etc, etc, etc. By implication, then, “IF” I do not go to church … or tithe … or speak in tongues … or have a ministry, does that mean that I must not be a Christian?

The argument reminds me of a course in logical thinking that I had to take back in my college days. One element of the course dealt with dilemmas in the form of syllogisms. These syllogisms attempt to force us to take one of two positions; I either love Jesus or I don’t. “IF” I do, then this, but then along comes logic and says, “IF” I don’t, then that.

A famous example of this was attributed to Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician. He developed an argument, which in one form or another, has often been used in evangelistic endeavors. It went something like this:
"IF" God exists, I have everything to gain by believing in Him. And "IF" God does not exist, I have nothing to lose by believing in Him. Either God does or does not exist. Therefore, I have everything to gain or nothing to lose by believing in God.
Despite the logic, I guess the reason that the above Facebook post and others like it bother me so much is that I cannot seem to come away from them without feeling like I am being guilted into doing something. Something might be cute or funny or profound enough to make me share and repost it, and I sometimes do. But when I’m told to share or repost using that little word “IF,” well that’s now a whole other story. Maybe it’s just me, but the innuendo I hear behind “IF” is GUILT.

I’ve listened to enough guilt in the past, and I don’t do guilt anymore. Having said that, “IF” I’ve ever dished out the guilt your way then I’m sorry. (But I guess then “IF” I haven’t dished out the guilt your way, I’m not sorry ???)

That’s the way I see it. Peace.

Photo Source: Unknown (via Facebook)

Monday, 4 August 2014

A Cry for Mercy

"Dear Lord, in the midst of much inner turmoil and restlessness, there is a consoling thought: maybe you are working in me in a way I cannot yet feel, experience or understand. My mind is not able to concentrate on you, my heart is not able to remain centered, and it seems as if you are absent and have left me alone. But in faith I cling to you. I believe that your Spirit reaches deeper and further than my mind or heart, and that profound movements are not the first to be noticed.

"Therefore, Lord, I promise I will not run away, not give up, not stop praying, even when it all seems useless, pointless, and a waste of time and effort. I want to let you know that I love you even though I do not feel loved by you, and that I hope in you even though I often experience despair. Let this be a little dying I can do with you and for you as a way of experiencing some solidarity with the millions in this world who suffer far more than I do. Amen."

Author: Henri Nouwen, "A Cry for Mercy"
Photo Credit: Neil Moralee, Flickr Creative Commons

Dysfunctional Homes: Abraham's and Ours?


I was thinking about Abraham and God’s promises to him and how very long it seemed to take from the time God made the promise until it came to fruition. Waiting those roughly twenty-five years like Abraham did, I’m not so sure I would have remained as much a believer in the promise as he is credited as having done.

Would you have? Let’s think about it …

When Abraham was about 75 years old, his dad just died at the ripe old age of 205, and God called him to go to Canaan. God also then promises him many descendants. It’s safe to say that both Abraham and his wife Sarah wanted children, but Sarah was barren, and that obviously presented a problem. Still, the Bible says that Abraham believed God.

About ten years later, when Abraham was now about 85 years old, the promised son had not yet arrived. Sarah, well, she gets somewhat impatient and suggests that Abraham sleep with Hagar, her slave, and try and have a son by her. While it may have been legal in that society for Abraham to do so, it was not in the will of God for him to do so. But Abraham goes ahead and does what his wife suggests, and sleeps with Hagar. Perhaps Abraham was getting a little impatient by then too. The whole thing almost sounds like an episode of TV’s “Sister Wives.”

Another year passes and Abraham is now about 86 years old, Hagar becomes pregnant, and Sarah becomes jealous! Things become so difficult in the home that Sarah throws Hagar out. Talk about your dysfunctional home! But the Lord intervenes and sends Hagar back, promising to take care of her. Soon she gives birth to a son and Abraham names him Ishmael.

Fast-forward another thirteen years, and Abraham turns 99 years old and Ishmael becomes a teenager. I am tempted to wonder if during those thirteen years of watching his son grow if Abraham forgot the promise of God. If he didn’t, perhaps he came to believe that the promise was already fulfilled in Ishmael. After all, when Sarah suggested Abraham take Hagar, she did so believing that any children born to Hagar would by default become Sarah’s children. Just when I imagine Abraham and Sarah believing that, God speaks again and once again promises Abraham that he would have a son by Sarah. Soon after, God also reaffirms the same promise to Sarah as well.

Another year goes by and Abraham celebrates his centennial and turns 100 years old. Now, after twenty-five years have come and gone since God first spoke to Abraham and told him to go to Canaan, the promised son is finally born. He is named “Isaac,” which means “laughter.” And yet I wonder if Abraham even thought of himself as being too old to become a father. After all, he was still 30 years younger than his own father was when he was born.

But the drama continues and Isaac’s birth now creates a new problem at home, in that the now 14 year-old Ishmael suddenly has a rival for dad’s attention! For 14 years Ishmael has been his father’s only son, and of course, he no doubt was very special to him. Have you ever wondered how Ishmael responded to the latest course of events in the home? Probably much like any other spoiled only child today would do.

Three more years slip by, Abraham is now about 103 years of age, and there is a weaning-party taking place in the home. A what? That’s right; a weaning-party. It was customary in those days to wean children at about age three and turn the event into a celebration. By now Ishmael has become a rebellious 17 year-old teenager, and I imagine created more than enough trouble at home. There seemed to be only one solution to the problem; Hagar and her son would have to go! With a broken heart, the 103 year-old Abraham sends his son packing, and forces him to move out of the family home.

Let’s stop there and unpack some of that.

On the surface this story appears to be nothing more than the dynamics of a dysfunctional family unit. In truth, it could have been any of our family stories; each of us could probably relate to multiple elements within it. We could probably all think of times that we thought we heard God speak to us, and when things later went a little south, perhaps we either became disbelievers or we wondered if we had heard God correctly in the first place. Many of us could perhaps relate to the infertility issues. Many of us might have had to face the reality of a spouse sleeping around. Even though Sarah gave her blessing to the union of her husband to Hagar, you can’t tell me that didn’t hurt knowing of the intimacy that had taken place with the other woman. Instead of waiting on the Lord, many of us have also run ahead of God, to only afterward ask God’s blessing on our Ishmael’s, the fruit of our impatience. Many of us have had wayward teenagers, and perhaps even have had to endure the pain of asking them to move out of our home. Perhaps like me, you too were the rebellious 17 year-old, who voluntarily or involuntarily, left your parents home at that young tender age. Perhaps we too have struggled with a dysfunctional home.

It is easy to look at biblical characters as people so much greater spiritually than we are. I’ve sometimes thought that about the people listed in Hebrews 11, those who were commended for their faith. But when we look at the life of Abraham, we see that it wasn’t all rosy and super-spiritual in his home any more than it is or was in ours. Just like ours, his too sometimes played out like a soap opera, and yet God was still clearly in the story.

I take comfort in that when things go sideways in my own life and I’m tempted to beat myself up for yet another blunder in my own spiritual pilgrimage. Even when I do something stupid, and everything maybe even feels hopeless, God has not left me, and He has made some pretty big promises to me too, just like He did to Abraham. In the same way, though there may seem to be nothing but a massive grey cloud hanging over your head, God has not abandoned you either, my friend. In His great love for you through Jesus, He has some awesome promises for you too. Be encouraged.

There are an interesting couple of verses that I’m going to close with and let us meditate on. They read,
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11: 39-40; NIV).
Somehow we’ve been included in Abraham’s story. Could it be that even Abraham himself hasn’t yet received the fullness of the promise of God, and won’t receive it until the end of the age when he does so in fellowship together with you and me? I wonder. Something to think about.

Peace and blessings to you and yours.

Photo Credit: Ashley Rose, Flickr Creative Commons

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Altar Call's Greatest Hits

"Music lovers, you won't want to miss your chance to order The Altar Call's Greatest Hits," they said. I was so excited that I called right away. I think it's a scam, though; the number rang through to Domino's Pizza. How disappointing! And having had it yesterday, I wasn't even in the mood for pizza today!



(I hope everyone recognizes satire when they see it. We don't want anyone to go away offended by this. Peace.)

Saturday, 2 August 2014

City on a Hill Christians: Does Greater Expectations Mean Greater Potential Judgement?


We are probably all familiar with the useful little phrase “all sin is sin”. It is a great way of allowing ourselves to love each other equally and not judge too harshly, because in the end, every sin is equal in God’s eyes. To an extent, I want to believe that. In another sense, I believe it is worth wrestling with.

I want to raise the challenge that there is a greater expectation on the Christian to avoid sin than there would be on a nonbeliever.

Christians have always loved to carry over a phrase from our Jewish roots, that we are a set apart people. We have been called to something greater than this world. Indeed, it is within the New Testament scripture as well, with Peter quoting Leviticus and saying “Be Holy, because I am Holy” (1 Peter 1:16)To be holy, to be sanctified, is to be set apart from worldly things. We are outwardly stating to anyone that will hear us that we are different, that we are a people striving for a glory that goes beyond anything this world has to offer. In the words of Jesus,
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. ... In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14,16).
We are that shining city on a hill, but with that proclamation comes great responsibility, and one I am not so sure we have given the respect that is due to it.

To go back to my opening question of whether we can justifiably say that all sin is sin, I feel compelled to suggest that because we are this “city on a hill," there is reason for us to believe that we should expect more of ourselves, and maybe, just maybe, that God expects more of us than he would of those who have not believed in Him. Now, before anyone gets in an uproar over that statement, let me elaborate. James states that
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).
I would venture to say that we are kidding ourselves if we do not all place ourselves into this category of teachers. We have all in some way or another believed ourselves to have enough understanding of scripture and our own belief systems to instruct others. Yes, you can argue, and I have heard it done, that this verse refers to someone like a pastor, someone who makes a living teaching the Word, but I don’t think that is the case. I think with the knowledge of scripture that we have, we automatically place ourselves into a position of higher judgement.

Perhaps the greatest reason for this increased judgement in my opinion is the way that we inevitably look to the world when we allow our sinful natures to corrupt the words we speak or the actions that we make. Therefore in the same way that the Jewish people of scripture were held so responsible for their failings because of the high standing they had been given with God, Christians should feel themselves equally so. Paul clarifies this point well to me:
"You, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Romans 2: 21-24)
That last phrase is chilling. First spoken by Isaiah, it rings just as true today as it did then. God’s name is still blasphemed among the Gentiles today, though not as much on account of the Jews, but rather the Christians, who have a less than positive reputation amongst a great population of the world. Because we have this great truth in our lives, we are called to live differently, and it is utter foolishness to do otherwise. As Charles Spurgeon puts it,
Much forgiven, much delivered, much instructed, much enriched, much blessed, shall we dare to put forth our hand to evil? God forbid! (Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, 410).
And yet we do that precisely! And yet we still believe that all sin is sin, and we will not be treated any differently? I am not so sure. We have a great truth in our lives that should be enough to give ourselves separation from the world, but telling a Christian from a nonbeliever is next to impossible on a daily basis. If we believe that will go unnoticed on judgement day, we are unfortunately fooling ourselves.

I will end this here with one more verse, which I confess to having little idea what to do with at my present stage in life:
"It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace" (Hebrews 6:4-6).
I don’t know about you, but I have trouble with the notion that “all sin is sin” when I read that verse.

Blessings

By Guest Blogger: Nick Rochow
Photo Credit: Normality Relief, Flickr Creative Commons