Reformation

Martin-Luther-Updates-His-BlogOn this Reformation Day, we remember that episode–now nearly five hundred years ago–when Martin Luther formulated and posted a list of disputations against some of the practices of the Church.  Though what eventually came to be known as the Protestant Reformation has a number of contributing factors, the life and actions of Luther (including this somewhat inauguratory one) are certainly among the most important.

Now nearly half a millennia from that moment, the legacy of the Reformation is all around us.  The Protestant Church is a well-established aspect of world Christianity. And, in the intervening centuries, the Roman Catholic Church itself has changed from the form it took during the days of Luther.  For all the bumps along the road–and the problematic features of Luther and other reformers–persistent alterations have resulted with regard to how Christians live their faith, understand God, and read the Bible.a0a59bf23908fdab7a893f9b595d8b10

The Reformation of the 1500s is over, of course.  It has been for a long time.  The circumstances of that era no long stand and we practice our faith in a new day.  Yet even as we live in the 21st century the Reformation poses an open question.

It goes without saying that we are not perfect.  The Church must face its inner problems as it looks to the Scripture and asks itself whether or not it truly embraces the Word of God or not.  Christianity, after all, is made up of fallible and sinful human beings.  It stands to reason that we will mess things up, given enough time.  Structures, habits, programs, and practices may end up obscuring the gospel today just as they did in Luther’s time.

Marking a Reformation Day, then, should never be a moment of simple backward gaze or a only the rehearsing of timeworn sola‘s.  It needs to mean something more.  It needs to stand as a reminder that we humans tend towards chaos.  That there is work to do as we seek to be people of the Word and live that Word in the world.  That there are ways in which we may have not been faithful and in which we may need to change.

120a12b703bcdd69ecd86e5e755552f4On this day of Reformation the Church needs to ask itself if it has let tradition, custom, and even doctrinal systems guide it in ways that Christ has not.  There should be questions about whether our theology and its implications are biblical or not.  We need to ask ourselves whether the ways in which we are interacting with others is truly Christian or something else entirely.  And then, of course, there needs to be the courage to actually change.  This isn’t just a task for 2014; it is the call to Christians of all eras.

My Reformed friends have a saying that I like: ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda.  In English this means “the Church always reformed, always reforming.”  Our sinful tendency, given enough time and independence, is to not be conformed to Christ.  The meaning of the Reformation is that we must be.  Always.

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Matthew 11

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

-Matthew 11:28

greydayvol1largeWhen the autumn season begins, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s like a thick blanket envelops me.  It is grey.  It is rainy.  It’s cool enough outside to begin to be uncomfortable, but not so cold as to actually be frigid.  It is, I would say, a somber and reflective time.  Not at all the high energy season of the year.

In such times my thoughts turn more readily towards melancholy and finitude.  The weather just seems to require it.  And trust me, the busyness and stress levels of the college professor in the month of October do nothing to diminish the effect.

As I ponder such things, I think I can hear more clearly the words of Jesus in Matthew 11.  Understanding that I can come to Him when I am weary gives me great comfort.  Knowing that those burdens can be laid down is a promise of inestimable value.  This brief verse is a special one to me in these greyer days.  It confirms and recalls God’s great love for God’s people.  For me.rest2

I’m a big fan of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.  I understand that grace is not cheap.  I realize the Christian life is one which will involve sacrifice and potential suffering.  So when I talk about the rest that Jesus offers, understand I do not do so lightly.  I’m not saying that the Christian life is all lollipops, unicorns, and soft-pillowed rest.  What I am saying is that in those seasons when life is darker and when times are tougher, I am ever so grateful that He is there.  The refreshment offered in Matthew 11, you’ll note, comes deep in the midst of the weariness and burdens we feel.

Jesus’ promise to give rest to those who come to Him is not something I take lightly.  Especially in those times when there seems nowhere else to turn, He is there.  In the darkness of the traffic-filled 6am commute, He is there.  In the restprocess of sorting out the various pile of papers on my desk, He is there.  When it seems you’ve just said “yes” to one thing too many and now you have to figure out how to honor your word when there are only so many hours in the day, He is there.

In certain seasons it really feels like, as C. S. Lewis once wrote, that it is “always Winter but never Christmas.”  In such times, Jesus says it is still alright.  We do not have to do this alone.  When our strength is faltering or gone, there is One to whom we can turn.  That’s a promise I’ll take any day.

Friends, just as much as we need other things–and perhaps a lot more–sometimes we need a rest. I, for one, am thankful there is somewhere to turn.

The Church in Tragedy

Marysville_WAAround lunchtime on Friday, many of us in the Pacific Northwest–and the nation-at-large–paused from the usual course of our workday, interrupted by a tragic and far too common occurrence.  Reports flooded in of yet another shooting in one of our schools.  We who live near Seattle paid even closer attention, for the situation took place not “out there” somewhere, but in our very backyard.

By now the story is widely disseminated: a high school student in Marysville, Washington (about 45 minutes to an hour north of Seattle) begin shooting students during lunchtime.  In the end he took his own life, but not before fatally wounding two and leaving others in serious condition.  The tragedy is yet another in a growing list of episodes of school violence that continues to mar our society.  That is bad enough.  When it happens only 40 minutes from your front door, it is terrifying and heartbreaking all the more.

Watching the newsfeed at midday on Friday, I was struck by the professionalism of law enforcement and caution with which they were operating.  I watched video of students being shepherded away from danger.  I wondered what it would be like to live in their shoes.  I pondered the fear that must have been flowing through their minds.  As I did so, I realized that I’d have to teach a class called “Introduction to Youth Ministry” in less than an hour.  2014-10-25T024516Z_1_LYNXNPEA9O014_RTROPTP_2_USA-WASHINGTON-SHOOTING

Whatever lecture was planned for the day took a backseat as we prayed for the students, families, and community of Marysville.  We spent time talking together about our thoughts and reflections as people called to serve students.  What would we do?  How could we serve in a situation like this?  What does ministry look like in the face of such horror?

As we prayed, processed, and reflected, I shared a few thoughts with my students (now likely embellished by a few days’ reflection).  I reminded them that as ministers in communities affected by such tragedy, our presence with people is important.  As we are in that place our ability to listen is vital.  So often we pastors are talkers and fixers and doers.  Helpful at times, but in the face of chaos that is beyond our ability to repair, these tasks must take a backseat to helping people express their feelings and process their shock and grief.

It has been heartening to see an example of the faith community being present and serving the community in Marysville.  On the same day as the shooting, a vigil was held at The Grove Church, where many came together to sort through their pain, sorrow, and questions in the house of worship.  Even in our sometimes post-Christian America, the ability for our churches to function as places where people can have such space persists.  Over the weekend I saw a short video report from their pastor:

Of course, a little video and a candlelight vigil doesn’t change what has happened.  It doesn’t end the process of grief.  It doesn’t fix everything.  But it is a beginning.  Serving as the Grove Church and others are in their community can mean being with the people whom God loves and listening, questioning, praying, and crying with them.  As their local high school will remain closed all week, the church will be open as a place for students to come and seek safety, healing, and a listening ear.  In the face of a tragedy like this that reminds us there is so very much we cannot repair, I believe what they are doing represents an important Christian orientation.

In the ability that The Grove Church and others have to be a place for people to grieve, meditate, question, and hope, I am reminded of a profound moment from the Gospel of jesus_wept_featureJohn.  It takes place right in the midst of the story about Lazarus, who has died.  In a tiny little verse we are reminded that as our Lord confronted the reality of death and the emotional pain that it brings, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).  Knowing that God weeps with us in our sorrow is of inestimable value to me in moments like these.  And knowing that His tears are not in vain can give us hope to look ahead.

May we pray for Marysville and its schools, families, churches, parents, and students as we continue to ask that “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

Things I Would Like To See (Part XIV)

cyoa022A “Choose Your Own Adventure” television show.  Now there’s an idea.

For anyone of a certain generation, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books need no introduction.  These were a series of adventures on a variety of themes which involved reading a few pages, being faced with a decision, and turning to different pages within the book depending on one’s choice.  Each option affected the progression and outcome of the story in interesting ways.  Sometimes you would die.  Sometimes you would discover treasure.  Sometimes you would be abducted by aliens.  It was a truly unique experience.

In a world where television is king, social media is all the rage, and reality shows persist, I think a partially crowd-sourced drama would be fascinating.

There would be logistical details to work out, of course.  For instance, the show could not really pause for input on decisions every few minutes.  Multiple timezones would disalloindexw this and it would require far too many permutations to have been pre-recorded.

More likely would be something akin to a decision point at the end of every episode or two.  Near the end of the week’s presentation, the show would present viewers with a choice of sorts.  We’d have a 24-hour period to vote, and the decision and its effects would be revealed at the start of the next episode.  The story would be altered because of our input.  Showrunners would have to have multiple options sketched out or filmed and/or be willing to move quickly to work on additional material for the next week.  It would be taxing on writers, actors, and production crews alike…but it has potential.

enhanced-buzz-21507-1361290970-1I would imagine the yearly run of episodes for  a show like this should be relatively short.  More like the 9 or 12 episode seasons of today’s top cable dramas.  So too like True Detective or American Horror Story, it might make sense to have a completely new storyline every season.  The benefits of this would be threefold: 1) to keep a viewer-directed story from going too far off the rails; 2) to limit the pressure on those making the show; and 3) to allow for different kinds of stories to be told each season.

All of this is admittedly a gimmicky approach, of course…but so were “Survivor” and “24,”  and they did pretty well for the themselves.

Whether or not such a participatory dramatic experience could be a viable form of entertainment remains to be seen.  But all the same, it is still one of those things I’d like to see.

A New Day

imagesI’ve now lived in the world of ministry for some time.  I’ve held credentials with a major American denomination since 2005.  For the few years before that I served in a local church in an unofficial capacity.  During my adolescence I was active in my own church’s youth ministry.  Though I was not thinking about ministry from a leadership point of view in those earliest days, I was still deeply connected to the work of the church.

All of this to say that I have a relatively long history with the task of ministry, especially as it relates to youth.  In my now 20+ years in the faith, I’ve seen a lot of things and there’s been a lot of change.  Some of this is simply cultural (Michael W. Smith no more, my friends).  But then there are also changes which have been much more substantive in nature.

In the past year or so I’ve discerned one of these shifts, at least out here in the Pacific Northwest.  At both the youth ministry and children’s masthead_imageministry levels, I have heard leaders share with our pastors that ministry is not about “behavior modification” but about a relationship with the living God.  Phrased just so, it is a statement that will definitely preach.

More than that, however, it speaks to a level of reflection and development within the field of ministry practice that I’m just not sure was there in a generation past.  To be sure, few if any were going around in 1995 saying that youth ministry was only about behavior modification.  All the same, I’m not sure how critically any of us were thinking about such issues in the first place.  And besides, one doesn’t have to say something out loud for it to be operationally true.

I think modern youth ministry and children’s ministry have both had to wrestle with the fact that a not insignificant part of their existence has to do with the church’s fear for the next generation.  Keeping kids safe and moral has been a hidden and sometimes overt goal with which we must grapple and ultimately reject as the main goal of our ministries.

the_theological_turn_in_youth_ministry1The recent discussions I’ve heard rejecting behavior modification as a goal are therefore interesting.  They are not happening only at the academic level or in books of practical theology (see, for instance, the work of Andy Root and others), but from pastors to pastors.  It is here, of course, that the real difference can be made.

The relevance and importance of this issue for ministry to rising generations within the Church has been something that I have reflected on as well from an academic platform.  It is a topic in which I believe and, I hope, an issue upon which our churches will continue to reflect.

Notable in all this has been the chance to observe the difference that can be made by those who write, reflect upon, and teach about youth ministry.  So often what we do–while ostensibly in the service of the church–seems a little disconnected from the everyday life of ministry.  To see and hear reflections at the level of pastoral encouragement on some of the same topics I’ve been writing or teaching is exciting.  Not because I made them up (I didn’t) or RHP_4430-low-resbecause I’m that important (I’m not), but because it might just mean that we who do what I now do may be part of making a difference.

As encouraging as it is, this is also a reminder that people who do what I do need to be careful and thoughtful about what we say.  Our words actually matter, and as such I need to make sure that I am being faithful to the Scripture, the Church, and those to whom I am called to serve.  Theological reflection needs to be married to practicality, all of which is to be done in service of the kingdom of God.  May I and others like me continue to remember this as we engage with and teach those who are serving our teenagers day in and day out.

Matthew 10

 “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

-Matthew 10:7

kingdomofgodseries-e1344704455581And so Jesus asks them to go, moving forward into the world in His name.  Healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons.  Something new is afoot, it seems, and the disciples get to be in the forefront.

I like what I see here, this manic picture of the effects of God’s kingdom when it breaks in on the world.  It’s strange.  It isn’t normal.  It is shocking.  But it is God.

As this new reality approaches, things start to get turned around.  The effects of sin, death, and darkness begin to be radically and powerfully reversed.  The ways of the world are suddenly turned back.  For a flickering moment, we get a picture of something radically different.

It doesn’t take more than a moment for me to be reminded how much I yearn for this kingdom to break into my life and our world in a lasting way.  How much I need it.  Yet I’m also reminded how far off it can sometimes seem.

Experiencing such a moment of brightness can cause us to look back on our present darkness with more than a tinge of sadness.  But before we despair, remember: this isn’t the end of the story.  What Jesus describes here is merely what happens when God’s kingdom comes near.

Imagine what will happen when it actually arrives.

Don’t Call It Persecution

christian-persecution-rosary-martyrs-bloodA friend’s Facebook recently alerted me to an article from TheDailyBeast.com concerning American Christianity and the concept of persecution.  More specifically, it discussed the seeming inanity of the use of the word “persecution” for anything Americans experience when compared to the dire religious threats and danger are faced by our fellow believers on the world stage.

The main target of the article’s ire was an upcoming study trip/luxury cruise with R. C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries.  The topic?  “Christ’s call to endure persecution and suffering faithfully.”

Oops.

The Daily Beast article appropriately excoriates the nonsensical combination of thinking about suffering while sipping pina coladas in sun-bathed excess.  As the author notes in his conclusion, “It’s unclear if this latest seaborne iteration of American Christian navel-gazing makes the attendees oblivious twenty-first century Marie Antoinettes or if this is just one big [expletive] to those non-American, non-white Christians being killed in the Middle East. Either way, it’s in tremendously bad taste.”  iraq-christiansWhile I’m pretty certain the truth lies with the first of these reasons, I agree it is bad no matter what.

The main issue here, of course, isn’t Sproul himself, but any notion that perceived “persecution” of American Christians deserves to be called that in the first place.  And–if you take my meaning–it doesn’t.  Among the sad lessons that ISIS has taught us, one of the most important for American Christians is that we don’t have the first idea what real persecution is.

When the stories of persecution in Iraq broke a few months ago, I hoped that the reality of religious violence against Christians and others would finally put to rest American Christians’ use of the persecution language and orientation.  And I do think that, by and large, there is greater understanding about the inappropriateness of such thinking.  So–the Sproul cruise notwithstanding– I hope that in a certain sense the criticisms The Daily Beast makes are outdated by at least a few months.  Perhaps the recent chain of world events, tragic as they are, has made us begin to own up to our reality and start to care more about those who are really persecuted.  Or maybe not.

atheistThough it is certainly true that Christianity (whether in forms orthodox or largely superficial) no long occupies the same role in American society that it has at points in ages past, this does not mean we are persecuted.  God on our money, “Merry Christmas” on our lips, respect and preference given to churches and ministers?  These things may pass away, but the simple fact of their passing does not persecution make.  Just because Judeo-Christian privilege in our society is beginning to fade does not necessarily mean that we are being attacked.  It might just mean that we are started to be treated without any preference.  After 1800 years of favor in the West, Christianity is entering a new day as secularization is on the march in the centers of cultural power.

For people of faith such developments can be a cause for concern.  But this is not the same as persecution.  Call it something else.  But don’t look Iraqi Christians in the eye and dare call it persecution.

The Daily Beast article notes: ” Rev. Sproul says that “wherever you find God’s people, you will find persecution to some degree,” he may be right, if we take “to some degree” to its absolute extreme.”  I agree.  It can be a little tough for Christians in an America that cares less about traditional Christian morality.  But that toughness does not equate to the endurance of persecution.  And even in those places where 9elements of government or society are legitimately attacking the actions of some religious people or wanting to curtail perceived rights, must we really place this in the same category as the saints of Iraq who are being devastated and murdered by a ruthless regime?  If a minister  is denied a housing allowance benefit, a church has to start paying taxes because they disagree with governmental policy, or a Christian is called an ignorant obscurantist and derided by her culture despisers, is this the same thing as persecution?  Losing rights and privileges is not a good…but living with constant fear of destruction is much, much worse.  I’m not saying American Christians don’t face any challenges.  I’m just saying it isn’t persecution.

Ultimately, the questions engendered by articles like that in The Daily Beast should reveal to us the danger of language defining a reality that isn’t even real.  Our Christianity is in a dangerous state indeed when we gaze inward so much that we make our own plight ppp-4as important as (or, the case with this cruise, more important than?) our brothers and sisters.

We are rich and comfortable here, so sometimes–indeed, most of the time–the first thing we need to do is shut up.  I know that some American Christians are frustrated with hand-wringing over our wealth and position, saying that we just have an overdeveloped guilt complex. OK, fine.  Maybe so.  But something like this cruise, so apparent and flagrant in its excess, calls into question not just this little study tour and its poor, poor choice of topics…but points some big questions at all of us who sit and complain in relative comfort while the world burns.