Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Living Among the Philistines:

There is an interesting verse in I Samuel. Saul and the people of Israel are arrayed in battle against the Philistines (the Israelites seem to actually be hiding in the hills). Jonathan has gone out with his man servant and has killed twenty men of the garrison of the Philistines and the battle is engaged. Saul calls the army out, they engage the Philistines, and then we have this odd text, “Now the Hebrews who had been with the Philistines before that time and who had gone up with them into the camp, even they also turned to be with the Israelites who were with Saul and Jonathan” [1 Samuel 14:21]. There are a number of “Christians” who, at the moment, are on the wrong side and are encamped with the Philistines.

What is a Philistine? The Urban Dictionary reveals the nature of the Philistine army encampment around us, and many “Christians” are essentially low-brow materialists who make their home among the “philistines” living solely for bread and circuses; not only that, but they are defiantly happy to do so. I present you the Urban Dictionary definition:

“Philistine = No Culture . A conformist in everything they do. A person who is obsessed with sports, sex … and Motor vehicles. They listen to whatever everyone else is listening to (especially if it is Country Music, Classic Rock, … Limp Bizkit or rap/Hip Hop…) They wear whatever everyone else is wearing, and avoid anything that is in the least bit unusual, unique, or eccentric. They tend to have little to no use for art, [seem to] be of limited intelligence, be obsessed with such things as NASCAR, golf, Hunting and Fishing, and tend to drive gas guzzling vehicles like SUVs and Extended cab Pickup Trucks. They are the fuel behind reality television… (They have) No capability of thinking outside the box or any other sort of critical thinking for that matter. The United States is dominated by Philistines.”

From a Christian perspective the Urban Dictionary, is a classic version of the Philistine viewpoint. It is “cultured” philistinism, and fails to see the greater perspective that there is a whole world outside of materialism.  The American Christian today who emerges from the ranks of the Philistines is often stunned to discover a whole world of beauty and joy in the realm of Christian Life and Spirituality. While they may enjoy the culture, art, music, and sports of Philistia they don’t live there. Their heart’s home and allegiance is the Kingdom of God.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Church, in All its Diversity, is the Body of Christ.

Until the visit of Pope Francis to the United States, I had forgotten the hatred and bigotry of some who profess to be Christians for each other. There are two identifying marks of being a Christian. The first is doctrinal, the second is practical. First, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” [1 John 4:2]. Second, “If anyone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” [1 John 4:20]. 

A working rule of thumb is this: Apostasy and lovelessness are two sides of the same coin. If the doctrine is wrong, the walk will be wrong. If the walk is wrong the doctrine is likely to be wrong.

Paul says, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” [Ephesians 4:1-3]. 

Why had I forgotten the hatred and bigotry of some Christians for each other? For years I was a member of Full Gospel Businessmen International, and in all the time that I was actively involved with that fellowship I never once heard Spirit-Filled people condemn other Christians. The reason is simple. If you walk in the Spirit you will love one another. The Church is the Body of Christ, and we are all members of that Body, regardless of denomination.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Wheat and Tares in the Congregation

You are probably aware of the parable of the Wheat and Tares. If not you can find it in Matthew 13:24-30. Darnel [Tares in the Gospel of Matthew] appears almost the same as wheat when it is young, but as both mature the darnel stands straight up, and the heavy ears of wheat bend over. This makes it easier to pull out the darnel before you harvest the wheat. The darnel is also mildly poisonous and hallucinogenic. 

Jesus extends the harvest teaching of the Old Testament in his parable about the wheat and the tares.  When the harvest is not yet ready the darnel looks much like the wheat, but when the harvest is ripe the mature wheat bows its head, but the darnel stands straight up and says look at me. 

When you plant a new church you cannot tell whether the people who come are wheat or tares. Most will be wheat, some will be tares; but that presents a problem. Tares are poisonous and can cause divisiveness in the Church.  If you have a long established congregation without doubt you have wheat and tares in the congregation.

Bonhoeffer tells us that “The old world cannot take pleasure in the Church because the Church speaks of its end as though it had already happened--as though the world had already been judged.  The old world does not like being regarded as dead.  The Church has never been surprised at this, nor is it surprised by the fact that again and again men come to it who think the thoughts of the old world--and who is there entirely free from them?  But the Church is naturally in tumult when these children of the world that has passed away lay claim to the Church, to the new, for themselves.  They want the new and only know the old.  And thus they deny Christ the Lord.”  [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, translated by John C. Fletcher.  (New York: Macmillan, 1959), 11].

The practical problem that we have in each congregation is that Church members often hear only one side of Jesus’ teaching, “Judge not,” and not the other side; if the offending person refuses to listen to you, “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” [Matthew 18:17] Sometimes congregations, out of misguided love, give the divisive person a position of leadership in committees, small groups, and on the vestry. In one church the divisive people all sat in one row, and before the service the organist was heard softly singing, "When the Row is called up yonder I'll be glad."

St. Paul gives the following instruction, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” [Romans 16:17, and again, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” [Titus 3:10].

Sunday, September 13, 2015

He Wants Me to Call Him: The Care and Feeding of Clergy

An old acquaintance, whom I haven’t seen for over ten years, has left his phone number with a third party saying that he would like me to call him. Ordinarily I would be delighted to make a contact with someone from the past, and I have maintained relationships going back over quite a number of years; but there is an interesting background to this request.

            This man, let’s call him Ozzie, mainly because I don’t know anybody named Ozzie. Here’s what happened more than once, twenty years ago. Ozzie would make an appointment with me and come to my office. He would sit down, and with a paternal smile take a list out of his pocket, and then begin by quoting from Holy Scripture, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness…” [Galatians 6:1-2]. 

            Having set the stage Ozzie would read me a list of what he considered to be my transgressions. My first response was concern, then a certain amount of shock, then the realization that he wasn’t only listing what he considered my “transgressions;” but things that he didn’t think that I was doing right. My first response, knowing my human frailty, was to accept his critique.

The second time he did this he graciously added, “I know you have an Alcoholic Personality, but …” I told him that he was out of line. I had been in recovery for over twenty-five years, and I had gone through quite a bit of therapy. One of my discoveries was that I was too willing to accept shame and blame. I realized that this wasn’t really about me, but about him and his need to have power and control over others.

Around that time I discovered that Ozzie was going into the office every Monday morning with a list of mistakes he found in the Church bulletin. As you can imagine Ozzie was driving them nuts. The result was that I had to firmly tell him that he didn’t have a ministry of correction, and that the Office staff didn’t need him sitting in judgment on them. There is only one accuser of the saints.

Ozzie wants to get me to call him by leaving a message through a third party. That by the way is called “triangulation;” the attempt to apply leverage by getting a third party to get someone to do something. Sometimes that’s not important, but in Ozzie’s case it is. Ozzie has easier and more direct options. He can ask his Rector to find my phone number, or he can call the diocese and ask them for contact information; then he can initiate the call himself.

Enough years and geographical distance have separated us that I have gained some perspective. I don’t harbor any bitterness, and I extended forgiveness to Ozzie years ago. That’s not the point. What is the point is, that there are people in the Church who think that it is their responsibility to correct the pastor and keep him in line; but be aware that they think it’s their God given ministry to correct everybody else too, and you might be next.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Prayer for Troubled Times

These are troubled times, and as the international threat of Islam is constantly in the news, the Prayer of Hannah comes to mind. Often for Christian’s the Magnificat gets in the way, because Mary paraphrased Hannah in her own prayer. But for a minute step back into the troubled times of Hannah, the mother of Samuel the Prophet, and listen to what she had prayed.

The Prayer of Hannah: 1 Samuel 2:1-10  

1 And Hannah prayed and said, "My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation.

2 "There is none holy like the LORD; there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God. 

3 Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. 

4 The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength. 

5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. 

6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 

7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. 

8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD's, and on them he has set the world. 

9 "He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might shall a man prevail. 

10 The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the power of his anointed."

Thursday, September 3, 2015

A Comment on the Cries for Justice in America

A Comment on the Cries for Justice in America: Everybody is crying out for Justice, but how can you call for justice without the whole truth?

Do you know what happened in the Garden of Eden? The simple story is the game of shame and blame; Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent, and the serpent ducked for cover and slithered away, laughing as he went.

The toll was terrible. Adam and Eve, not being satisfied with having everything, wanted their own way, lost Paradise, and sin had entered into the world and God had to send His Son, a blood sacrifice for them all.  All that is, except for the serpent. The last laugh was on him. “He who sitteth in the heavens hath the devil in derision.”

But sin, in the form of bloody murder, had entered into the world and with that, murder…Cain killed Abel…and the cry for justice entered the world. The blood of Abel cried out from the very ground, and the theme of the mystery novel was born. What happened? Who did it? Will justice be done in the end?

Justice is being confused with entitlement. Like Adam and Eve, people want their own way, not accountability. Justice and entitlement are not the same thing. You cannot tell the story of justice accomplished without telling the story of why it was needed. You cannot do true justice unless the justice meted out is commensurate with the bloody crimes that call for it. 

Oh, Yeah!

There are some benefits and some drawbacks to contemporary worship music. It’s simplicity has the benefit of making a good chorus memorable; after all I have occasionally had a good gospel chorus run through my mind in the middle of the night. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night singing Bach, even though I prefer Bach to much of the contemporary worship music that I have heard.

On the other hand there is a difference between being simple and being simplistic. Some of the contemporary worship music is so theologically simplistic that it is like jumping head first into a shallow pool; you just might strain your brain! Recently I was exposed to a contemporary praise song that posed some problems for me, not that the theology was all that bad, but the presentation distracted seriously from the message.

First of all it was lousy poetry. C. S. Lewis objected to some of the hymns in Hymns Ancient and Modern for the same reason, so maybe we can call it a draw, but not quite. Even though some of the hymns in Hymns Ancient and Modern were not very good poetry, at least the lines had some rhythm and rhymed. The same cannot be said for much of contemporary praise music.

The depth of contemporary worship music can hardly be favourably compared with,

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

The real problem with the contemporary music piece was the last line of the last verse; “Such a marv’lous mystery yeah!” Now I understand that the composer’s intention was to present his song in colloquial English, but the word “Yeah” introduced the last double singing of the chorus. Guess which word the music team and the congregation sang with the greatest gusto and unbridled enthusiasm, Yeah?

The Oxford English Dictionary says of the word “Yeah” that it is a “Nonstandard spelling of yes, representing informal pronunciation.” It may be a matter of taste, but I usually prefer a steak to a McDonald’s hamburger. Can you imagine singing, “Come with us O blessed Jesus, yeah! With us evermore to be, yeah!”? Somehow it spoils the effect of a worship song, yeah! even though the chorus of the song might be theologically acceptable, Yeah!