Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Elf in my Bed

Night before last, I had a dream.
It was one of those crazy, mixed up dreams that we usually have, and frankly I don't remember a thing about it except this, that at some time in the dream,  a little man in a green suit came running onto my house. It startled me so bad I jumped up and fell out of the bed.
I woke with my wife screaming at me, "Bill, are you all right?"  There was pain in my wrist and hip.  I crawled back into bed, went back to sleep, and woke in the morning sore and bruised. 
I thanked God.  It could have been much worse.  My head missed the nightstand and the bookcase by inches.  Fortunately, I have spent a lifetime building upon my body layers of fat as a buffer to withstand such an event--and it worked.  I was ok, but I  hurt in the morning. 
 We have a very tall, queen sized bed, about thirty inches off the ground.  We've had it for sixteen years. Never once did I roll off the bed in my sleep until that night.  It never dawned on me that sleeping could be dangerous.
I am not a seeker after portents, but I do believe that God speaks to us through dreams.  Maybe he was speaking to me through this one, and the circumstances surrounding it.  After all, if we can have an accident in the middle of the night, how safe  are we anywhere?  If we can fall out of bed and hit our head on the floor or break our necks,  shouldn't we wear crash helmets to bed?  Should we sleep
sitting up in chairs? Or should we accept the fact that life is  a risk?
We cannot be free from danger. Maybe we should just accept the fact that calamities happen to all of us. We can avoid some of them, but not all.   Life is risk.  Not to risk is not to live.
The other side of that is this--God is with us. For sixteen years I have been sleeping in that bed, and never once has an elf startled me out of it in my sleep, until then.  When it happened, God watched over my vital parts, so that nothing was broken.  I was protected by the Almighty, who knows me in my sleep.
So why should I worry the rest of my life?  He watched my going to bed and he watches my getting up.  I do not have to fear the sun by day or elves startling me out of bed at night. 
Wherever we are, God is there.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Faith Inventory 1

I am trying an experiment connected with my project The Faith Matrix.   I have put together an ananoymous poll,  seeing where people are in faith connections.  Take a minute and fill it out.  Thanks. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Face of the New Church

In my last blog, I wrote my belief about the contemporary church--that it is sick, perhaps dying.  This is because we are obsessed with institutional success and worldly reputation. 
When it comes to our mission, the church has just about compromised itself into irrelevance.  In our passion to reach the world, we have spent our time trying to copy its means, its methods, its likes, and dislikes.  We've been so busy trying to "reach the lost" that' we've forgotten why we’re reaching for the lost.  Instead of bringing people to Jesus, we've made it our business to bring Jesus to them--in a safe, sanitized version that wouldn't offend anyone.  When we see churches that have athletic programs and day-care centers that are bigger than the church, we really have to ask the question whether Christ died on the Cross to give the world athletic programs and day-care centers.  We've made a safe, comfortable niche for ourselves in a society that allows people to be comfortable with us,  satisfying ourselves that we are somehow of use to an increasingly pluralistic or secularized society. 
This isn't new.  The church has been at peace with the society which contains it for most of the last seventeen hundred years--and for the most part, we've been successful at it. The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce calls itself the "city of churches."  Our nation has a National Cathedral, but no official God.  Clergy open meetings of the Senate and House, and pray at inaugurations.  Clearly, we have nothing to fear from such pluralistic tolerance, and no one much fears us. 
The world is changing though, more than we are.  The world is looking at us, and discovering that Christianity doesn't go with perfect tolerance.  We actually have a stand against homosexuality, adultery, and other things. 
It was such intolerance of the secular society that made Christianity the first forbidden religion in the Roman Empire.  Today's universal culture, which mirrors Rome in so many ways, has no tolerance for intolerance, either.  They are rejecting the church, and the Christian religion as being intolerant and exclusive--which (in fact) we are. 
I don't want this to be downbeat, though.  In fact, I'm very upbeat about the church as a whole.  Jesus said about the church that "the gates of hell will not prevail against it."  It may be that the institutional church is dying, but the spiritual church will never die.  Rising out of the old church institutions is coming a new church--smaller, leaner,  less institutionally driven, but closer to what Jesus had in mind.  This new church does not focus on buildings or programs, but on serious disciples of Jesus. 
Faith is the rock on which the church is built--more than belief, but a living relationship with Jesus. The outer shell of worldly institutionalism may die, but the inner core of the committed will go on.
 This is not my idea, nor am I saying anything new.  It's coming from everywhere, from Fundamentalists, Evangelical, mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians-- from black churches, white churches, contemporary churches, traditional churches, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Catholic--all across the board.  Arnold Toynbee said that one of the great lessons history teaches us is that where there is darkness, the stars come out.  As the old church fades, the lights of the new members of the new church will truly shine.
What will this new church be like?  Personally I don't think it will be "like" anything. It will be diverse in its views, practices, and traditions. But the new Christian church which survives will have certain characteristics.
1.       It will have a passionate faith in Christ. It is not enough to believe in Jesus--we must also have faith in Him--that is, Jesus must be our ultimate concern.  The new church will first of all seek to get closer to Jesus.  Any other pursuit is irrelevant.
2.       It will be a church filled with God's Spirit.  Its members will seek a relationship to God and seek His guidance in everything from the way they get up in the morning to their lifetime goals.
3.       It will seek out spiritual disciplines. Before we were called Christians, followers of Jesus were called People of the Way.  This referred to the Christian discipline of life--prayer, fasting, gathering, forgiveness, giving, and so forth.  The earliest writings of the church outside the Bible were about such things. The Methodists were called Methodists because they followed a lifestyle or method for doing everything.  The Puritans were Puritans because they sought pure lives.  Richard Foster said that spiritual disciplines are not important in the Christian life--they are the Christian life.  The new church must make the spiritual disciplines a real priority.
4.       It will show the love of God to the world. Roman society could not understand Christians. They did not understand why they adopted babies left to die of exposure, why they opposed abortion, why they believed in the equality of slaves and masters, why they evangelized single women, why they refused to go to gladiator games, or why they showed mercy to their enemies.    They did it because they loved. They were willing to die for that love, and they did.   The new church will have to love in the same way, not promoting its own importance, but quietly loving behind the scenes.  The new church will have to follow the old church in this.  We will still be fishing for men, as we do today--the difference is that the only bait we have will be ourselves.
5.       It will seek to live by a corporate rule of life.   The early church adopted rules of life, which were not about laws, but attitudes: charity, chastity, temperance, simplicity, tolerance, honesty, integrity, and forgiveness.  These were a corporate ethos that was strongly taught, and which all new believers were expected to practice.  The new church will need such attitudes in the increasingly secular society of the future.
As I said, there's nothing new about any of this.  It's just a matter of actually being sincere and dedicated followers of Christ.  What's going to be different in the future is that there will be little opportunity for the church to be anything else. We can no longer survive on our sterling reputation as one of the pillars of community life.  We will have go to back to being a small group of radicals in society, without political influence or society respect,  just living for Jesus and for Jesus alone.
I think this is the future of the Twenty-first century church.  And the gates of hell will not prevail against it. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Prayer for A New Church

I claim no divine revelation.   I am just observing of the times in which I live.    You may see it differently--that's your privilege.
The way I see it, the church as the institution I have known for fifty years is dying--or at least very, very sick. It would take a miracle to restore the American Protestant church to the health it once enjoyed.
What is the reason for its ailment?  Secularism--not the secularism of the general society (that is expected) but the secular spirit within the church.  The church  has traded its soul for secular importance. 
 The Christian church was born in the fire of the Spirit, launched by belivers who committed their whole hearts to  Christ,  and copied Him all things.  It was a disciplined network of disciples, dedicated to following his ways.  
Somewhere along the way,  it changed.  It lost its taste for the sacred.  Instead, the church reinvented itself, seeing itself as a worldly institution, seeking its reputation in the world as part of the power elite.  Instead of following Jesus' mandate to bless the weak, and the poor, and the hurting,  we became a tool of the rich, the powerful and the self-important.  
The seeds of the church's malaise was with us even in the time of the disciples.  While they followed Jesus, they badgered him wanting to know which of them would be the greatest.  Jesus answered that greatness and earth and greatness in the Kingdom are not the same. 
We're still asking this question.   We concern ourselves with who has the biggest sanctuaries, the nicest choirs,  and loudest praise bands and the hippest members.
For the first three hundred years, the church seemed more focused on the Spirit.  We were a persecuted minority. No one in their right mind would want to join a church  unless they believed in Jesus and wanted to find Him.
Then the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and everything changed.  Suddenly, anyone who wanted the emperor's ear became a Christian as a way of currying favor with the emperor. The power hungry, the glory seeking, and the opportunists flocked to the church. In no time,  the church  became just another path to success.
For the last seventeen hundred years, not only has the  church been a visible presence in the world, but the world has been a visible presence in the church--with the rich and famous on the front pew.  The church built mighty cathedrals in every town,  took part in inaugurations and coronations, had the invocations at sporting events,  and  generally became the safe, civil religion of Western society.  As a result, the fires of the Spirit burned, sharing  its space with the ambitions of the powerful.
The church is not evil, though. It has done many good things in the world.  It has evangelized much of the world,  build hospitals, schools,  universities, etc.  But  there has always been another side.  Church leaders lust for societal respectability, to be the biggest church in town, have the most expensive sanctuary,  the most important members,  the most professional choirs, and have the most eloquent preachers.  Our desire to be important requires big budgets.  In order to impress the world, we must be the world. We have adopted the worldly standards of success.   
Pride has been the downfall of the mainline church--pride in their social status and cultural suavity. They enjoyed being the big churches downtown for.  They feed the poor as long as they don't have to give up anything to do it. They share the gospel, as long as it doesn't offend.  They never saw themselves as compromised, but as sophisticates.  They became what they are supposed to be transforming. The mainline churches and denominations which dominated America today are the sideline,  abandoned  and irrelevant.
Ambition will be the downfall of the megachurches, too--the temporary successors to the mainline.  They are not bound by the traditions of the past. Instead, they are create  new power structures, no less proud or secular.   Their desire to reach a younger generation for Christ is being superseded by  the pursuit of budgets and numbers.
 The world is changing, though.  The big, powerful churches are falling out of favor with the world.  The overall rate of church attendance in America has been declining by some estimated at a rate of one percent per year. 
Every year it becomes more obvious.   The secular world is abandoning us. 
It's not all bad news,  though. There is, I believe,  a new church emerging out of the ruins of the old.  It is not an organization, but a movement. It is not the formation of new denominations,  but something that is emerging within all denominations.  It is not a threat to the power structure, but a movement that regards the power structure as irrelevant.  It is instead, simply  a desire to  get seriously  get close to God. 
Across denominational and cultural borders, there is a growing sense that something more is needed in an indifferent and hostile pluralistic society. The early church succeeded not by superior organization or publicity, but by building on the character of its followers. It invested heavily in the building of disciples.  The earliest books  outside of the New Testament reveal that the early church was far more concerned about making disciples than making converts.
This new church is not some new organization but a new attitude, where being biggest or first does not matter,  but being servants and disciples does. It does not seek to supplant the old church. It will exist within the organizational church, supporting it, praying for it, working alongside. But when the old church collapses into oblivion, the new church believers will be there,  filled with the spirit and ready to serve.  Then the church will be renewed by the Spirit of Christ, and the world will again be transformed.
Let’s pray that the church comes to its senses soon, and stops its rush to be rich and powerful.  It is a path to destruction. Instead, let's pray that God's people will seek God again, and devote ourselves to living as disciples of Christ.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

God Faith

  I am no fan of theologian Paul Tillich.  However, there was one thing he said I liked.  “Faith” he said, “is the ultimate.” 
Faith really is the ultimate. It is the ultimate--
--Authority for our life
--Source of our joy
--Meaning of our existence
--Reason for everything
--Goal of all we do
--Hope for the future.
While everyone has a kind of faith, the Christian faith is truly unique.
At its heart is a living God, who we know through Jesus. Our faith is in a relationship not  an idea. 
Even so, the faith of Christians is often not what it is supposed to be.  When this happens, then it is usually one of three problems.
1.       Misplaced faith—when we think we have faith in one thing, but really have faith in something else.
2.       Mixed faith—When we try to look to God for heaven, but to other things for security love,  or purpose on earth.  We can’t follow God and Mammon.  We can’t follow God and TV, either.
3.       Mini-faith—This is childish, not childlike faith. Grown up faith is needed for grown-up problems. 
Our real faith is what we put before everything.  It is not something we just die for. It is what we live for every day.
What do we live for?  Lots of things.  In general, though, the ultimate  purpose of people may be divided into three general kinds:
1.  Self faith.  Self faith is faith when we are our own purpose for life.
Self faith is not necessarily selfish. It does motivate some to help others, purely from their own ego.  “I am a good person, so I must do good things.”  
It can also motivate us to honor God It can motivate us to support our families.  It does all this, though out of a concern of how we look, how we are perceived, and how long our legacy may go on. Ultimately, it still goes back to who we are.  
When we put ourselves first, we may want God and others to be on our side, but not necessarily us on their side.
2. Community faith sees the value of a community to which we belong as being most important.  This is a generous, patriotic, and involved faith, but not necessarily a godly one.  The community we serve may be as large as all mankind or as small one or two people. Whatever we define as our community is most important.    
Community faith can have some serious problems. When a community is valued under God, then serving it may be good, but when our community is put over God, then community can become a monster. Hitler was a patriot.  Mafia bosses value their families.  Gangs value their friends. A racist values his race.  Penn State officials covered up terrible crimes for what they perceived as the “good”  of their college.  Patriotism or family, when valued over God, has resulted in more evil in the world than ever could be accomplished by selfishly evil people.  
3.  God faith.  God faith is in a creating and sustaining God. God faith looks to Him for happiness and fulfillment. All that we are or ever will be is to His Glory.

What is our real faith?  
We really ought to be sure. Having the wrong faith can be disastrous, both for ourselves, and for everyone around us.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The dry soul

Since this April, I have diligently pursued the spiritual disiciplines.  Since then, I have noticed a difference in my walk with God.   I have gained much more insight into many areas of faith. My latest writing project, The  Faith Matrix, my workbook  Prayer- the Adventure,  as well as my course on spiritual disciplines have all grown out of this interest.   God continues to open up new ideas in this area, and I hope soon to write about ideas that may tie it all together. 
One thing I am finding, though is  that spiritual disciplines are not easy.  Just as your body gets tired from exercise, and your mind gets tired from study, your spirit can get tired from  seeking God. The spiritual life is no bed of roses.  It involves a lot of down and dirty wrestling with sin,  judgementalism,  impure motives, and a host of other problems.
There's a famous painting called The Temptation of St Andrew. He was one of the first hermits  in church history.  He's sitting on a rock praying, and all around him are hosts of devils of every kind, trying to tear him away. I haven't been a hermit,  but even  at home, trying to pray, I have experienced a few of their brothers bothering me. 
The hardest part prayer is when you seek some experience of God, and come up dry. Some times He seems to be right at your shoulder. Other times,  your prayers seem to be careening off the ceiling. 
I try to think of what to do. Maybe I should get my guitar and sing. Maybe I should just read more, pray harder,  study a little deeper, get quieter, etc.  But none of this works. There seems to be nothing I can do.  Nothing.
As unpleasant as it is to be separated from the feeling of God,  though, there is one good part.  When I realize that there is nothing I can do, I also realize that there is nothing I need to do.  We are not promised heavenly bliss all the time, nor that we will have ecstatic experiences. If it  happens,  then good. If not--well, so what?
The greatest danger in these dry spells is losing our focus. My focus shouldn't be on what feels right, but on what is right.  Faith is not in a feeling, it's in God.  Sometimes  God takes away the feeling so I can learn to trust Him.  
When my kids were younger, we'd go on a trip, and they would pepper me with questions.  "How much farther?" they would ask.  "Where are we now?" I'd give them the road atlas.  "What state is this?" they would say.
I don't blame them for being curious, but after a while, it could be annoying.  I would want to shout to the back seat  "If you're not driving, you don't need to know!"    If God is in control of my life, then why do I need to know what happens next?   Could it be that I don't fully trust him?   I want constant reassurance because My faith is not what it should.  The only way it can improve is to sit back and allow God to reveal Himself when and how He wants to.  He knows my need for His presence and He will show Himself when I need it. 
Even when I am a dry soul, I'm God's.  Even when I don't feel Him, I can believe  in  Him.  The feelings may come later.  I can trust Him today. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

What is Faith For?

From 1989 to 1993, I served as a volunteer hospice chaplain in Florida. I did it, in part,  for my own education. I wanted to know what happens to people while they are dying.  Do people turn to God in their dying process?  Do they become depressed and discouraged, or do they find new hope.
I discovered some surprises.  People behave different ways.  Some people turn to God, others do not.  Sometimes the people who have been most religious in life have the hardest time dying,  and some people who have had no faith in God face it with relative ease.  Clearly there is a difference between having faith and having religion.  Many who claim to live by faith do not. Many who think the have no faith do.
To answer why this can be, we have to look a little bit deeper at the question of faith--not what faith is but what faith does in inside of us. What role does faith play in our ordinary lives?  . 
 Imagine a triangle composed of three parts—body, mind, and spirit.  The body is our physical side--our needs, appetites, and desires associated with the body.  It is how we connect to the physical world.  The mind is our non-physical side. It is how we connect with the world of other people—our social and psychological self--our moods, lusts, ambitions, and insecurities.  The spirit is our faith side. It is the values, beliefs, loves, and desires for something outside ourselves that is not physical pleasure of social position.  It is how we connect with the Holy Spirit.  Tillich called it the Ultimate.   Faith is what causes us to make the value decisions of life. ·     
 Suppose you have a serious medical condition and you must endure a great deal of pain and suffering to get better. You might not get better at all. .  But why should you endure? Why try to stay alive?
 Suppose you and your wife are having marital problems.  You think about leaving, and so does she. But you don’t leave.  You stay and work out your problems.  Why?
·Suppose you feel a call to the mission field.  You are called to leave our work, your home, and family and go to the other side of the world.  Why should you go?   These are faith decisions.  They have to do with what we think is ultimately important.
Our faith is our reason to live. Our faith is our reason to die. Our faith is why we persevere in the face of trouble. It is also why we surrender our will to the will of God. It is how we answer the ultimate questions of life---who am i?  Why am I here?  Why should I go on?
Not everyone  has a solid foundation on which to make life decisions. Many people do not know why they are here, or what they are living for. They just stumble through life from one accident to another.  Oh, they may have beliefs, but they don’t trust They believe in God, they have just never learned to trust God.  Paul said
 Just because you have belief in God, doesn’t mean you are living by faith.  Your beliefs and faith don’t necessarily connect. 
A person can have faith in something without belief. There are many people who are Star Wars of Star Trek fanatics, who organize their lives around conventions celebrating made-up stories, who try to copy the morals and ethics of these imaginary worlds,  yet do not believe they are true.
A person can have belief without faith. We can believe in bigfoot or Roswell aliens, without having any effect on how we live our lives.
But Christianity requires faith as well as belief. Our true faith is what we build out life upon, not what we say to be true. 
Is Christ the basis for your life?  Or is He a mere belief?
 In times of trouble, many people find that their faith is not strong enough to hold them.  Faith that is not developed and exercised cannot prepare us for the tough questions of  life. 
These people are afflicted with one of three faith diseases—
They have a misplaced faith.  Misplaced faith is when we think we believe in one thing but actually have faith in something else.  We think we have faith in God, but our lives are actually about having faith in ourselves. 
The human heart is deceptive.  We may say we live for the God’s glory. but actually live for something else. 
For such a person, the greatest gift God can give them is disillusionment. When we come to understand that we cannot trust anyone, not even ourselves, then we may be on our way to trusting the Lord. 
They have a mixed faith.  They have faith in God part of the time, but it is so combined with other things that it is not solid.  It is a foundation of iron and clay,  unstable at its base.    
Proverbs 3:5-6 says “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not upon your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your path.”
The person with mixed faith trusts God in some things. He may trust God to get to heaven, but he dare not trust God to put food on the table, so he feels he has to steal to do it.  He may trust God on Sunday, but he cannot trust God to satisfy his needs for enjoyment and satisfaction in life. For that reason, he turns to sex or alcohol.  We can trust God for our eternal future, but cannot trust God for our retirement, so we hoard as much money and goods as we can. 
If we are to trust God, we have to do it all the way.
They have a mini-faith. Their understanding of faith is just too small and too poorly developed to withstand the troubles of the day.  Child-like faith is not the same as childish faith. Faith must grow in complexity and understanding beyond childhood if we are to meet the needs of the adult world. 
Many Christians have a “bumper-sticker” faith.  We know the slogans--
“Jesus saves.”  Saves from what?  Does it just mean hell, or does it mean something else?.
“Let Go and Let God.”  Sounds great. But how do I do that?  How can I let go, when my thoughts are in such turmoil.  If I still feel worried does that mean I am not letting go?
“Prayer changes things.”  Prayer changes things, but sometimes things get worse after I pray.  How do I cope with unanswered prayer?
“What would Jesus do?” Well—what would Jesus do?
These slogans are not really answers.  They are just starting points for deeper study.. 
If our faith is to really have an impact on life, then we cannot just push the same old platitudes. We must dig deeper and not stop until we get them. This is not easy. It requires work, effort, and study. But it can be done. 
Jesus told us about two houses, one  build on the rock, and the other on sand. An adequately prepared faith is the rock of our lives.  An inadequately prepared rock is the sand.  If we build our faith on the rock, it will last. 
If not, it will fall.  Faith is like that. Real faith in Jesus will hold us up in anything.  Misplaced faith, mixed faith, or mini-faith is like sandy soil under a big house. It is just not adequate for the job.