Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Church of Mercy: A Book Review

"In this day and age, unless Christians are revolutionaries, they are not Christians. They must be revolutionaries through grace!"
~Pope Francis

Among the books I received as gifts this past Christmas was this one: "The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church," by Pope Francis.

A Caveat

I am not a Roman Catholic, nor do I recognize the office or authority of the pope as anything greater or lessor than the authority given to all believers. I believe in the priesthood of all believers equally, and that together with all believers everywhere, we make up a "chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [together] you [and I] may declare the praises of him who called you [and me] out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Peter 2:9).

Still, I recognize that the Bible does contain examples of leadership. However I am also strongly convinced that, whatever those examples of leadership that God originally gave us were intended by Him to look like, they've long since evolved into something very different in most of our modern institutions. I would suggest that this includes both catholic and non-catholic institutional church leadership, but on more than one occasion I've addressed that subject in other posts, and as such do not wish to regurgitate it further here.

A Fascination

Having said that, for some reason I am fascinated by Pope Francis more than I've ever been by any of his modern day predecessors. Why? I don't know for sure, but there's something about him that I like.

Maybe it's the fact that he's the first ever Jesuit pope; something that seems to come out in his teaching. Maybe it's the fact that he's from South America, a continent and culture that's very dear to my own heart, having lived there myself during part of my formative childhood years. Maybe it's the fact that he is the first non-European pope in over 1200 years, which in and of itself also suggests a change of thinking in the institution. Maybe it's the name he chose, naming himself after Saint Francis of Assisi, another favourite of mine. Whatever it is, and though I certainly do not agree with all of his theology, there's something about this pope that I like. Apparently I'm not alone, as Pope Francis was also named TIME Magazine's 2013 "Person of the Year."

Book Organization

This little book of 143 pages is made up of 39 short chapters, averaging no more than two to three pages each. These chapters are talks and homilies that Pope Francis delivered during 2013, his first year in office, and are grouped into ten parts. They are:
  1. The Good News of Christ
  2. A Poor Church for the Poor
  3. Listening to the Spirit
  4. Proclamation and Testimony
  5. Full-Time Christians
  6. Shepherds with the "Odor of the Sheep"
  7. The Choice of the Last
  8. Demolishing the Idols
  9. The Culture of Good
  10. Mary, Mother of Evangelism
Catholic or Evangelical?

Look again at those titles. Other than perhaps Part Ten, at first glance, I don't think any Christian would have an issue with sectional headings like that, and quite possibly, wouldn't even recognize the Roman Catholicism in them. As I read their chapters, I was struck by how almost "Evangelical" much of them sounded (I say that somewhat 'tongue-in-cheek'). And yet every once in a while, a theological blip or hick-up would jump off the pages and remind me that I was in fact reading a Roman Catholic author, and one with some significant differences of opinion to mine.

Still, as an old friend of mine used to like to say, "Chew on the meat and spit out the bones." I have read plenty of big-name Charismatic and Evangelical authors too who I didn't agree with 100% of the time. Non-catholics have also been known to promote some pretty twisted theologies. While I once likely would have focussed my attention on those differences, in more recent years I've tended to rather celebrate the things we have in common instead, such as in this blog post. Yes, my friend was right; "chew on the meat and spit out the bones," and there's lots of good meat to chew on in this book.

Some Nuggets

Some of the rich nuggets include a discussion about the importance of preaching our faith with our lives as opposed to only our words, tying back into the famous Francis of Assisi quote, "Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words." Pope Francis added, "One cannot proclaim the Gospel of Jesus without the tangible witness of one's life ... Inconsistency on the part of the pastors and the faithful between what they say and what they do, between word and manner of life, is undermining the Church's credibility ... Proclamation and witness are possible only if we are close to Jesus." I like and wholeheartedly agree with that.

I was struck by his humility, as in a chapter dealing with holiness and mankind's sinfulness, he includes "a sinful pope" on a list of sinners (p.30). His concern for the poor also comes out loud and clear when he asks, "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods, and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?" (1 John 3:17).

The Cult of the God of Money

Probably my favourite section was chapter 30, entitled "The Cult of the God of Money," which Pope Francis delivered to a general audience on 5 June 2013. In many ways it is bang-on with my own personal views too; it's almost as if I were the one who wrote this speech for the pontiff. And yet, I too am not without my flaws and shortcomings when it comes to money. Here it is in its entirety:

It is no longer the person who commands, but money, money, cash commands. And God our Father gave us the task of protecting the earth - not for money, but for ourselves, for men and women. We have this task! Nevertheless men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the "culture of waste." If a computer breaks, it is a tragedy; but poverty, the needs and dramas of so many people, end up being considered normal. If on a winter's night - here on the Via Ottaviano, for example - someone dies, that is not news. If there are children in so many parts of the world who have nothing to eat, that is not news; it seems normal. It cannot be so! And yet these things enter into normality: that some homeless people should freeze to death on the street - this doesn't make news. On the contrary, when the stock market drops ten points in some cities, it constitutes a tragedy. Someone who dies is not news, but lowering income by ten points is a tragedy! In this way people are thrown aside as if they were trash. 

This "culture of waste" tends to become a common mentality that infects everyone. Human life, the person, is no longer seen as a primary value to be respected and safeguarded, especially if that person is poor or disabled or not yet useful, like the unborn child, or is no longer of any use, like the elderly person. This culture of waste has also made us insensitive to wasting and throwing out excess foodstuffs, which is especially condemnable when, in every part of the world, unfortunately, many individuals and families suffer hunger and malnutrition. There was a time when our grandparents were very careful not to throw away any leftover food. Consumerism has induced us to be accustomed to excess and to the daily waste of food, whose value , which goes far beyond mere financial parameters, we are no longer able to judge correctly. Let us remember well, however, that whenever food is thrown out, it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor, from the hungry! I ask everyone to reflect on the problem of the loss and waste of food, to identify ways and approaches that, by seriously dealing with this problem, convey solidarity and sharing with the underprivileged.

We've All Fallen Short

Like all Christian denominations, and those of us who fill up their pews, the Roman Catholic Church is obviously also not without her flaws. Romans 3:10 quickly comes to mind, "There is no one righteous, not even one." We all alike need Jesus. Pope Francis would be the first person to agree with that, as time and again in this book he points his readers to Jesus.

Furthermore, since we've all fallen short, it seems to me that we who make up the the church of Christ, catholic and non-catholic alike, could all learn to be a little more gracious towards one another when it comes to our "dissections and factions" (Galatians 5:20), our denominations, all of which in and of themselves are "acts of the sinful nature" (Galatians 5:19). And who knows, books like this might be just the ticket to helping reduce that long-standing rift between us. If that were one of the outcomes - even just a little - I'm sure Francis would be pleased. Hopefully too, so would we.

If you're even remotely interested in Pope Francis and the things he believes in, I would recommend "The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church." It's an easy and quick read, and it gives a good basic overview of this popular pope's message of mercy, service, and renewal, without resorting to heavy dogmatic theological treatises.

Peace & Blessings. Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, 26 December 2014

The Beer Drinker's Guide to God

"Oh taste and see
that the Lord is good."
Psalm 34:8

Among the books I received as Christmas gifts this year is one whose title intrigued me perhaps more than any other that I've read in a very long time. It is called, "The Beer Drinker's Guide to God: The Whole and Holy Truth About Lager, Loving, and Living." Doesn't that title just make you want to sit up on your pew (or bar stool) and say, "Hmm?"

This interesting book hails from the pen of Father William (Bill) Miller, "an Episcopal priest at St. Michael and All Angel's Episcopal Church in Kauai, Hawaii. He is also co-owner of Padre's, a live music venue/watering hole in quirky Marfa, Texas."

To whet your whistle further, here's a descriptor from the back cover of the book:

"Being upright does not mean you have to be uptight - at least according to Father Bill Miller, an Episcopal priest/bar owner. As a fan of both spirits and the Holy Spirit, he is very familiar with the intoxicating lure of some of God's finer creations, and in The Beer Drinker's Guide to God, he brews up insightful, beautifully written reflections about the strange intersections of God, and, well ... beer.

"In this humorous collection of essays, he weaves together stories from his life ministry, his travels in search of the world's best Scotch, his conversations with Trappist monks, and colourful evenings in his bar, Padre's. He also reflects on the lessons he's learned from baseball, Playboy bunnies, Las Vegas, and his attempts to become chaplain to the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, all while (somehow) crafting essays about the spiritual importance of generosity, sacrifice, openness, and spiritual transformation. Really.

"Essays include:

  • WWJD: What Would Jesus Drink?
  • Brewed Over Me and Distill Me, O Lord
  • Pearls of Great Price
  • Chicken Soup for the Hooters Girl's Soul
  • Miss Hawaii and Other Miss Takes
  • Don't Leave Me Hanging: The Theological Significance of Athletic Supporters

"From the deeply touching to the laugh-out-loud funny, these stories ultimately open our minds to the glory of God and our mouths to some of God's more delicious creations. The Beer Drinker's Guide to God is a smart, hilarious book for those thirsty for God's truth."

Well there you have it; "The Beer Drinker's Guide to God: The Whole and Holy Truth About Lager, Loving, and Living." As a Christian who is also a self-proclaimed humorist and beer enthusiast, you had to know that such book would catch my attention. Clearly the gift-giver knows me very well too.

So now if you'll excuse me, Chapter 1 awaits. Happy reading.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Nativity Set: De-Sanitizing the Christmas Story

Well it’s that time of year again; time to begin preparing for the festivities of yet another Christmas.

The Christmas decorations in our home are very simple and basic: a hand carved nativity set my parents brought back from Indonesia, another nativity scene painted by a friend on three blocks of wood shaped like trees, a little illuminated Christmas village, and a wreath on our front door. That’s it; no Christmas tree, no lights, and no lawn ornaments. It’s not that we have anything against such things, for we don’t; we used to have them all too. Perhaps that will change again one day when the grandchildren begin to join the family, but for now in this season of our lives, this is Christmas.

As I set up our simple nativity set this year, it struck me how we’ve sanitized the Christmas story. Obviously the early church did not have nativity sets, since their creation was credited to St. Francis (d. October 3, 1226). However, if they had looked at a nativity set, they would have seen the events surrounding Jesus’ birth very different than our modern and sanitized “Christianese” version. What do I mean by that?

By saying that, please understand what I’m not saying. I’m not trying to be negative or suggest that we should or shouldn’t celebrate Christmas a certain way. I am simply stating that I had an epiphany of sorts as I reflected on the various pieces of our nativity set that I was setting up. Let’s look at a couple elements of the traditional nativity set.

The Star

Now I don’t know much about astrology and such things, but I’ve read of how some people think that the star of Bethlehem that the Magi saw may have been a meteor or a comet. This would account for it being seen by them as moving “ahead of them” (Matthew 2:9) through the sky. The problem I have with that is that this version of the star downplays the miraculous. It’s true that stars don’t move through the sky, but with God all things are possible – including moving stars - and perhaps especially so when it comes to the announcement of the long-expected Messiah.

Still, if it were a meteor or a passing comet that the Magi saw, that would have symbolized death. A meteor crashing to earth brings death and destruction and sorrow and fear; a star, on the other hand, somehow seems to speak more of peace and hope and the love of God through creation. While the angelic proclamation was “good news” (Luke 2:10), we seem to have disassociated the fact that there would be no good news without the cross of Calvary as the second part of the Christmas story. For it truly to be good news for you and me, Jesus had to die. Death and destruction had to follow the cute child in the manger. Ultimately, death was the sole purpose for the birth of Jesus.

The Magi

There aren’t a lot of people in the New Testament identified as magicians (“magos” in the Greek), but the Magi who visited Jesus at his birth were among them. Now obviously magicians and magic go together, but unlike our modern carnival “magic” shows, ancient magicians were often associated with sorcery, evil and even death. It is interesting to note that popular thought in New Testament times was that the gods could be controlled by the use of magic; people could be manipulated, evil spirits could be defended against, and even events could be brought about and controlled. When we read some of the early church apologists, it’s apparent that it wasn’t a denial of the miracles that was being argued against, but rather that the miracles were accomplished by the power of God rather than by magic.

As such I find it fascinating that among the first responders to the birth of Jesus were magicians, those very people whose belief and craft seem so contrary to the church and her message. The kind of people who, in a few short years, would come at odds with the Apostles, were at the bedside of the birth of the Saviour. People like Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8: 9-25), false prophets and sorcerers Bar-Jesus and Elymas (Acts 13: 6-12), were all Magi like those in our nativity sets. Magic and superstition, often accompanied by death, both physical and spiritual, met Jesus at the manger.

As I reflected on this further, I was reminded of Isaiah 45:23, “Before me every knee will bow,” a verse that the Apostle Paul would allude to again in both Romans 14:11 and in Philippians 2:10. “Every knee,” including all those magician and ungodly and occult-worshipping knees that currently bow to the prince of this world, will one day bow to Jesus.

The Gifts

The symbolism of the gifts is huge. The gold and incense and myrrh (Matthew 2: 11) from the magicians, was also packed with prophetic symbolism. Gold is a symbol of wealth and royalty. Jesus, who was and would be King, whose Father owns the “cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10), already owns all the gold, and as such was only receiving back from the magicians that which He ultimately owned anyways. Just as any other earthly king often received gifts of gold, so too King Jesus received gold as a gift and symbol of His royalty.

Likewise the incense had its symbolism. As far back as Exodus 40:5 we see a golden “altar of incense in front of the ark of the Testimony” in the tabernacle of God. Incense was an important part of worshipping God. Historically it was a part of prayer, which raises another whole interesting question: Were these magicians praying as they offered their gifts?  Certainly they would have used incense in praying to their pagan deities (1 Kings 11:8, 2 Chronicles 30:14). Moving to the other end of our Bible’s, we see the prayers of the saints symbolically rising in a cloud of incense (Revelation 8: 3-4). Incense was also something used by the rich and wealthy and was burned at parties (Ezekiel 23:41), which sheds another image to the “celebration” of Christmas. However, it was also closely tied to death and funerals (2 Chronicles 16:14, Jeremiah 34:5).

Then we come to the myrrh. What is myrrh? My dictionary defines it as “a sticky brown substance that comes from trees, that has a sweet smell, and that is used in products that give the air or people’s bodies a pleasing smell.” Myrrh was a part of the anointing oil (Exodus 30:23) and was used by Joseph and Nicodemus to embalm Jesus’ body (John 19:39). Think about that for a moment; one of the baby shower gifts that Mary received at Jesus’ birth was used for embalming the dead. Imagine presenting a new mother a baby shower gift of embalming fluid today. Hmm, probably wouldn’t be received too well, and yet that’s what the magicians gave Mary at the manger. Once again, when we de-sanitize the nativity set, we see the dark symbolism of death, and specifically, sacrificial death.

The Lambs

Lambs were also an important part of the worship of God. From Abraham’s telling his son Isaac that “God himself will provide the lamb” (Genesis 22:8), to the slaughter of the Passover lamb in the days of Moses (Exodus 12:21), to Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Jesus that “he was led like a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7); lambs were regularly sacrificially offered to God, their spilt blood an atonement for fallen man’s sin.

When I looked at the little lamb figurines in my nativity set, I began to imagine them there at the manger of infant Jesus almost as a ceremonial retirement celebration. With the incarnation, with God putting on flesh, the services of the lambs are no longer required. The cute little lambs at the manger symbolized sacrifice and death as payment for sin. Thirty years later John would say of Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

When we look at our nativity sets, do they remind us of sacrifice, and that “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7)? If not, it may be time to de-sanitize our nativity sets.

The Innocents

As much as it is true that Jesus came to bring life, his birth also ushered in a lot of spilt innocent blood. “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (Matthew 2:16). Now there’s a disturbing image! Aren’t you glad that slain little boys were sanitized out of the typical nativity sets? I sure am! Yet they are no less a part of the Christmas story.

What kind of a monster would order the murder of innocent little boys? It’s hard to imagine such an atrocity. Still, it’s for the monsters in all of us that Jesus came, born of a virgin, born in a manger, born to die as our sacrificial lamb, died so that we by believing in Him, “may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

Suddenly I find myself no longer being able to conveniently separate the Christmas and Easter stories, for they really are one and the same story. For me the nativity set suddenly has come to symbolically depict the cross of Calvary. Something to think about.

Merry Christmas

All Scripture taken from the New International Version (NIV). 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Marriage: Rethinking What Makes it "Christian"

“Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her …” (Genesis 24:67; NIV).

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage, and specifically the question as to what constitutes marriage in God’s eyes. For the purpose of this musing, I’m not interested in the current popular discussion about whether or not the homosexual community should or shouldn’t be allowed to get married, nor am I interested in society’s definition of marriage at all, but rather only about God’s view of marriage for His children.

Having said that, and for the purpose of this post, I’m defining “His children” as true Christians – born again, filled with the Spirit, Bible believing – as opposed to those who might identify themselves as such simply based upon their lineage or denominational upbringing, without having any real relationship with Jesus Christ.

If you would call yourself a true child of God, a Christian as described above, then what does it take to be considered “married” before God? Assuming there is such a thing as a “Christian wedding,” what is it? Is it getting married in a church building as opposed to in a courthouse or a park? Is it having a pastor (priest, reverend, minister, etc.) presiding over some special ceremony in such a church building as opposed to a justice of the peace or some other provincial/state sanctioned person saying a few words and making the declaration that these two people are now married?

And what about the term “Holy Wedlock?”

The word “Holy” suggests that it’s a God-thing for sure, and there is a “lock” in wedlock suggesting a permanency to the union, but again, how do we get to that part? Oh, I know how we get there in our modern society; I’ve been to enough weddings. But do those ways of getting there truly make “Holy Wedlock,” or are we still missing something here?

At the risk of digressing too far, many years ago while I was still a pastor, I remember thinking of how I would rather officiate a funeral than a wedding any day. No, I didn’t preach that from the pulpit. However, the few select individuals I did mention it to, often had that “deer in the headlights” blank stare, thinking such a thing as rather odd. After all, funerals are often seen as depressing and sad, whereas weddings are happy times. But as an evangelical pastor, I saw more opportunity for pastoral care and to present the important things in life - such as the Gospel, our mortality, and eternity – at funerals than I did at weddings. Do people really pay attention to the words the pastor says at a wedding, or are they just looking at the beautiful bride and thinking ahead to the party that’s about follow?  At a funeral, however, we are all forced to deal with the question of death and the possibility of life afterwards. That question never comes up at a wedding. But back to the original musing:

What does it mean to be married in the eyes of God?

First of all it means being yoked to someone of like Christian faith. Paul said, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14; NIV). Many have understood that to mean that a Christian should never marry a non-Christian, because in the important things in life, there simply is no common denominator.

I remember getting myself in hot water one time when I refused to marry a couple in the church I was pastoring. The bride’s parents were active members of the church, but she lived in another community and simply wanted to get married in her “home church,” a term that I understand less and less as time goes on. And though she claimed to be a Christian, and certainly grew up in a Christian home, she was marrying a divorced man who was clearly a non-Christian. They were not yoked together in a common Christian faith, and though the wedding still happened, because of my own convictions at the time, I refused to officiate it. Needless to say, it didn’t make me very popular with the family.

Likewise I used to cringe when people would come to the church office and ask to “book the church” for their wedding and ask me to officiate it. I wondered why they, non-Christians, wanted to be married in a church building. After all, if you clearly don’t believe in God, then why choose the place where people who do believe in Him hang out as the place to get married? Why not just go to the courthouse, or some little Las Vegas chapel where they don’t care what you believe? Or do they think that by getting married in a church building that they suddenly are having a “Christian” wedding? Does standing in front of a pastor as you exchange vows make the whole thing somehow more Christian and legitimate? On more than one occasion I’ve mused about the hypocrisy of it all.

Sometimes I think we kid ourselves. The only thing that makes a wedding “Christian” is when two genuine Christians choose to get married to each other. It has nothing to do with where the event happens, and I’m beginning to think, nor does it have anything to do with who leads or officiates it. Having said that, and at the risk of further toying with a possible sacred cow, do we really even need a pastor at a genuine Christian wedding at all? Sure, the state/province requires certain approved individuals there for legality’s sake, but again, that has nothing to do with whether or not we’re married before God. In fact, I am hard pressed to find any biblical reference to a pastor (priest, reverend, minister, etc.) involved in the wedding ceremony, but I do find mention that “God has joined together, let man not separate” (Mark 10:9); the Officiator is God, not man. This begs another question:

Does God Require Man’s Pomp and Ceremony?

Could it be enough for a genuine Christian man and a genuine Christian woman who love each other and who want to spend the rest of their lives together to simply make the decision, perhaps announce their intentions to a couple Christian friends as witnesses and to pray over them, and then simply move in together? Then, having consummated that relationship, are they not, based upon their faith, already married before God? Is that perhaps not a better definition of “Holy Wedlock?” Is that not a “Christian Wedding” in the truest sense of the term? Does man’s officiating it in a solemn ceremony make it any more so? Does the reciting of man-made vows trump the two hearts, already joined together in the Holy Spirit?

Let’s take this one step further. Is this too not a part of our being called “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a people belonging to God, that you may declare … “ (1 Peter 2:9); that you and I, average and ordinary Christians, have just as much authority in the eyes of God (if not more so based upon our relationships) to declare someone married as the pastor or judge? The power may not be vested in us by the state to do so, but as a child of God and joint heir with Jesus Christ (Romans 8:17), could it not be said that all genuine Christians already have all the authority they need to bind or to loose (Matthew 16:19), including praying for and declaring a couple married before God?

I remember one wedding I went to several years ago where a non-clergy friend of mine performed such a small ceremony. There was no pastor or priest, and to make it legal in the eyes of the province, the couple still had to visit a justice of the peace afterwards, but by then the real “Christian wedding” had already happened. When I asked the bride afterwards why she chose our mutual friend to “officiate,” she told me it was because he was the most godly man she knew. What I found interesting (and sad at the same time) was that none of the local pastors even made her list, but that’s a topic for another time.

The Ironic Dichotomy

In a day and age when it is said that there are now more so-called Christian marriages ending in divorce than non-Christian marriages, it makes me wonder. Could it really be possible that we Christians, who preach love and forgiveness, ironically have yet to learn how to truly love and forgive one another? So much for those marriage vows, and so much for the pomp and ceremony in which we uttered them.

In a day and age when even cohabitating people, if they break up, are considered married by the courts and are given the same rights with regards to property and wealth distribution as married couples are, it all makes me wonder. It also begs another couple questions: What is marriage really? Where is God in those marriages?

Have we perhaps turned our so-called Christian weddings into simply another religious event? Given the distain many have for being religious, and based upon the previous statistic, have we perhaps in some ways ironically become even more worldly than the non-believing world around us? Ouch! And if so, it also begs the question: Why do we bother with the whole pomp and ceremony at all?

Am I still missing something here? Something to think about. Peace.

May God bless, protect and preserve our marriages.

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother 
and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
(Genesis 2:24)