A Savior

One of the challenges which I see in the church, especially among leaders, is confusion over who is the savior. The problem is not that these leaders, and some members, struggle to come up with a description of Jesus Christ. Many of them do a great job of telling the life story of Jesus, talking about his earthly ministry, and giving a theological explanation regarding his death and resurrection. The issue is that in their zeal for fulfilling the Great Commandment, they begin to think that they are responsible for ensuring the salvation of others. This could not be farther from the truth.

Jesus came with a purpose, some may even say a call. Jesus’ purpose was to destroy all the barriers between humanity and God. God’s desire is that all may experience the fullness of God’s love in a lasting relationship with God. The difficulty in the achievement of this is humans have chosen often to take paths which lead them away from God. These paths make us vulnerable to committing unloving actions and to experience the impact of those actions taken by others. They also can give us a distorted understanding of love. Jesus’ ministry was focused on correcting this distortion and showing how these paths lead us away from God.

Jesus broke down social barriers which humanity created amongst themselves. Jesus presented a definition of love that was unconditional and with a focus toward others and not self. He reminded everyone what it meant to be in relationship with God. Actions which he took supported his words and showed us how we are to demonstrate God’s love to one another. All this culminated in his loving action taken on a cross where he gave his life to remove any remaining barriers we might have between us and God.

That final action by Jesus which led to his death and resurrection is sufficient for all people. Through this action, Jesus saved us from the paths we take which lead us away from the love of God. Jesus does not need us to recreate or to add to this action. Instead, Jesus told us to go out into the world and to tell all the people of his breaking of all barriers. More importantly, Jesus desires us to demonstrate this work in our own actions and words.

There is not one of us who is the Savior. That position has been filled by Jesus Christ. We do not have it within our abilities to break down the ultimate barrier between God and humanity. What we do have is the ability to introduce the Savior to others by our lives. Our expressing of the love of God and attributing that love for the choices we make in life will open doors for individuals to first experience and then begin to understand what God’s love is truly about.

YOU ARE NOT THE SAVIOR! Instead, spend your time introducing the Savior to others through your life and the sharing of God’s love.

Answer Unavailable

For me, one of the most difficult realities in life is that times exist when answers do not. As a leader in the Christian church, I have often been present with people when they experience tragedy and/or loss. I have sat beside a person when they have been given extremely bad news. I have accompanied police officers as they have had to deliver news of a death to a family. It has been my responsibility to speak to a community when horror such as what occurred on 9/11/01 happens in our nation. In each of these situations, people have looked for answers that are beyond any human’s ability to provide.

This week, news of a senseless tragedy filled the airwaves and newspapers due to an event in my state. Less than twenty-four hours after this tragedy, another horrible act was committed in Ohio. Over thirty individuals lost their lives within a 24-hour time span because of the actions taken by two individuals. Right away people started seeking answers. The news media asked questions of law enforcement about motives and how these events took place. The politicians started discussing their theories and placing blame on others. The families of the victims, the ones who deserve answers more than anyone else, asked the question that always arises, “Why?

Over the years and my experience in seeking answers to questions like this, I have come to realize that some questions must be left unanswered. Sure, we can theorize, and we can rationalize but the reality is that the answer to Why? is not available. We can search the Bible, ancient manuscripts, history books, psychology books, and all types of writings, but the answer is not there. We can listen to civic leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement, professors, and anyone we believe to have wisdom and still there is no answer.

This lack of an answer frustrates us immensely. We are at the point of human development where we are used to taking on tough questions and with much effort finding the answers. In an age of technology and endless available information, we have convinced ourselves that no question exists which we cannot answer with Google and a little work. When we get frustrated, then we turn to blaming. We blame the cause of the tragedy, we blame our leaders, we blame ethnic backgrounds, we blame the internet, and at times we even blame the victims.

Here is a reality that may be difficult to swallow…there is no answer. No matter how much blame we throw around. No matter how much wisdom we seem to obtain. The answer to this Why? is not within our grasp.

Yet, there is still hope. The hope does not lie within our powers or abilities. The hope does not lie in the ability to “fix it.” Hope comes from only one source. This source has been known to people since ancient times. The name of the source may have changed over the years and throughout civilizations but it is the same source of hope. Some may call it Yahweh, some call it the Great Spirit, some call it Allah, and still others call it God as I do in my Christian faith. Our hope is found in God even when the answer to Why? is not obtainable.

Is This It?

Seems that not a day goes by anymore which does not contain some message about death. Recently I have heard about the deaths of individuals who I attended worship alongside. There have been deaths of celebrities. Tragic deaths such as the ones occurring in California at a garlic festival and those of hikers in Canada have made the national news. Locally, living in a large metroplex, death from accidents and violent acts of humans are daily mentioned on the television or in the newspaper. At times, it seems that death surrounds us all the time. Actually, that is more accurate than we may wish to acknowledge.

I have been thinking about how we respond to death. These thoughts have included both our societal responses and the responses we have as individuals, specifically in regard to our faith. I worry occasionally that as a society we have become so accustomed to death that we hardly even notice it anymore. Yet, I also am aware that some of our apathy towards death stems not solely from the frequency of encounter but also from our unwillingness to look at it honestly. We do not wish to affirm the reality of death because in doing so we have to face our own mortality.

Facing our mortality requires us to think about what we concern regarding the afterlife. Since there is no solid proof about the afterlife, we are afraid. For a large number of people, this fear leads us to ignore or push thoughts of death out of our thinking. We adopt an attitude of if we do not confront death, we do not have to think about death. Death seems too unknown to us and the fear is overwhelming, so we attempt to push it aside.

As a society and as individuals, we often want to hide death. One example is in how we talk about death when a person is deceased. We use phrases such as, “He has passed on,” or “She has parted.” Our avoidance of using the word death is a way to lessen the reality. By reducing the finality of death, we can evade dealing with it.

I have a much different view towards death. My view of death is very dependent upon my understanding of my faith. Through my reading of the Scriptures, the development of my beliefs, and my own experiences, I see death as a transition. There is no finality in death for me. Instead, there exists a belief that at death a person transitions from an earthly existence into a spiritual realm. Since I believe in a bodily resurrection, this does not mean that a person only exists as a spirit in this spiritual realm but that the same joining of the body and spirit which occurred during our earthly birth happens within the spiritual realm. I also believe that in this spiritual realm a person experiences the fullness of God.

Due to my understandings and beliefs in regard to death, death is not something I fear either for myself or those whom I love. Just because I do not fear death does not mean that I do not grieve when a person dies. I grieve though not because I fear what happens at the point of death and after, I grieve because I know that for a period of time I will be separated from that person. Once fear has been removed, the grief is a little easier to bear. Once fear is removed, you can talk honestly about death and the afterlife.

Good Managers

Today I thought I would talk again about one of the words that is used in church circles but is often misunderstood. The focus word for today is stewardship. When most people hear this word they think about a campaign each congregation launches in late fall to get financial pledges from their members for the coming year. Based on those pledges then the leadership creates a budget. The problem with this understanding is that it is far too limited.

The word stewardship comes from the word steward. A steward is a manager of property and/or finances on behalf of another person. So stewardship is the act of managing. Based on this definition, one can easily see why the word conjures in the minds of many church members the image of a financial campaign. Yet this falls completely short of the Scriptural understanding of stewardship.

The concept of stewardship is first introduced in Scripture in the first chapter of Genesis. Here, as part of the creation story, God places all creation under the care and authority of humanity.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Genesis 1:26-30 NIV

Here God is placing humans as managers over all which God just created. So stewardship includes the managing of creation.

Another aspect of creation is found in 1 Peter. Here the writer reminds us that we are to use whatever gifts (skills and abilities) we have been given to serve one another.

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 4:10-11b

Not only are we reminded that we are to be managers of our gifts but also of the grace which we have received from God.

As you can see, stewardship involves much more than the annual fundraising for the church. Stewardship is an expectation and responsibility placed upon us by God. We are to be managers of everything which God has created and which God has given to us.

Hopefully the next time you hear the word stewardship, you will not only include your managing of money in a way that benefits God’s church, but also consider how you are managing the other aspects of life.

The Christian and the Atheist

I have a good friend who identifies as an atheist. He was raised in a Christian church and went through all the rites associated with the Christian belief in God. It was not until he was older and witnessed his father die a horrific death caused by cancer that he decided that there is no God of any kind.

Atheism is defined as the absence of belief in any deities.

By this definition, my friend is an atheist. His reasoning is that if a god did exist, especially the Christian understanding of God, then his father would never have died in the manner in which he did. My friend would not be the first to make such a claim. Not everyone who states this thought begins to identify as an atheist however.

As a Christian leader, how can I be friends with an atheist?

My answer to that question is pretty simple…because I believe in Jesus Christ. My understanding of what my Lord taught is that all people are children of God, even those who do not acknowledge God. If this is true then I am already in relationship with my friend because he is my brother in God.

Another important lesson which I have picked up from reading Scripture is that I am not empowered to choose who receives God’s mercy and love. The choice of who receives and who does not belongs solely to God. We see this in the story of Nineveh and Jonah. We see this in the story of the woman charged with adultery and Jesus. God retains the power of who God gives mercy and love. With me not having to make that decision and my belief that God has chosen to give ALL people mercy and love, then I am free to love even those who identify as atheist.

My understanding of my commitment as a Christian is that it is not my responsibility to save anyone. I am not even sure what someone would need saved from other than maybe themselves. Once again, the saving has fallen into the realm of God. What I am called to do as a Christian is to do my best every day to demonstrate the love and mercy of God to others as I have received it. The reason that I strive to do this is not because it impacts my receiving of love and mercy but in response to having received that love and mercy.

I have heard some people state that there is no way they could ever be friends with an atheist. Why they feel that way is only known to them. However, I can speculate that for some it is out of fear. The individual may be afraid that if they befriended an atheist, that friendship might weaken or damage their faith. If that is the case, then I think they need to examine their understanding of faith and work toward a healthy faith.

Others may argue that being friends with an atheist would shed a negative light on them when viewed by their Christian friends. This argument has problems abounding. First, you would need to question what type of Christian friends you are associating with if they do not view extending love and mercy to others is in opposition to Christ’s teachings. Second, using the example of Jesus, a follower should never allow the viewpoints of others to limit reaching out in relationship towards others, especially those termed undesirable.

A Christian and an Atheist

I am a Christian. I am a leader in the Christian church. My good friend is an atheist. We have a wonderful relationship in which we can share ideas (even opposing ones), laughter, jokes, and some coffee. I no longer get to see my atheist friend anymore since we live in different states now but I think of him often. I look forward to being able to see him again soon.

Understanding Prayer

Prayer is one of the most common aspects of any faith system. Every faith tradition which acknowledges a belief in a higher power has some form of prayer as one of its spiritual practices. Some systems have regimented prayer structures. Others are relaxed and dependent more upon the individual than upon a structure. No matter how a particular faith practices prayer, the understanding is that prayer is a conversation between a person or group of people and the higher power which is at the center of the beliefs.

A challenge which prayer presents is that there are such a variety of forms and so many ideas about prayer that we often stumble over ourselves attempting to engage in prayer. As a Christian, I have often heard people say they cannot pray. Whenever I hear that, I am saddened because often this type of thought is the result of someone telling them that they do not pray correctly. At these times I explain to the person that a “right way” to pray does not exist. Sure there are formulas that some individuals use but a specific pattern or specific words are not at all necessary. Usually structured or patterned prayers are intended to introduce the concept of prayer to a person but are not mandatory in any way.

Prayer is a conversation, a conversation which should include a sharing of thoughts and feelings like any other conversation you have in life. A unique aspect about this conversation though is the reality that there is no audible response from the other one in the conversation. I am not saying there does not exist a response, just not one to which we are accustomed. A person needs to be open to experiencing the response in a much different way. Yet what remains is the understanding that prayer is a conversation and does not need to be difficult.

I have been practicing my faith for a large number of years. I have been trained as a leader in my faith. Over all those years and through all my training and service, I have prayed in different settings both aloud and silently. I have led prayer and I have been led in prayer. All types of prayers have been a part of my experience. I continue to learn of other ways people pray. Through all this, I have come to the point where praying is no longer confined to a specific time or location but seems to have become woven into my everyday life. I had heard of continuous prayer but had no perception what that might mean. Instead, continuous prayer in my life has just happened. I feel constantly engaged in conversation with my God. Different experiences, different settings, and different forms of expression make up continuous prayer for me.

Let me confess, I am not sure that the title I have given this blog post is fair or accurate. I say this because I do not believe that prayer can truly be understood. Prayer contains so many elements and expressions that it cannot be neatly tied up with a definition or a specific formula. Prayer instead is an experience, an experience that is unique to every person, every faith, and every culture. Accepting this reality is what I think has opened the door to continuous prayer for me.

Since prayer is such a large topic, I want you to view this as an introduction into my thoughts on this topic. I can promise more blog posts concerning prayer as time moves along. I would also love to hear of your experiences of prayer.

Finding God

It might be while taking a walk along the beach. Maybe it is when you are walking along a trail through a wooded area. After entering the sanctuary of a great cathedral might be one of those moments. While you listen to some beautiful music you may sense it. These and other experiences can be specific moments and experiences when a person senses they may find God. But what if you do not experience one of these moments? What if you feel like you are on an endless search and never have been able to find God? Does God not want to be found by you? Are you not worthy enough to find God?

The search for God has been a quest which people have undertaken over the centuries. Some quests have gone by different names. At times individuals have not even been able to name what they were in search. Yet there seems to be something within each of us that drives us to seek out God, even if we use a different name for that which we seek. We appear to have a hunger to find someone or something which is bigger than we are or even our collective selves.

My experience is that it is a journey, definitely a quest. Like all spiritual journeys there are times of great confidence. There are also times of great doubt. I can name specific moments when I have felt connected to God in indescribable ways. As easily, I can name times when I thought I had totally disconnected from God. Moments of great surprise have occurred when God seemed to show up even though I was not looking. All these experiences are pieces of my journey with God, a journey that shows no sign of ending.

From my experiences, let me address the questions which I posed at the start of this post.

What if you do not experience one of these moments?

This question followed lists of potential ways in which people find God in their midst. The truth is that not every person is attuned to the spiritual aspect of an experience. Some may feel like there is something different but cannot articulate what. Every person is created differently and experiences life a little differently. There are people who do not think in terms of “feeling” an experience. Just because a person does not experience one of those listed above, does not mean the person is incapable of finding God. If you are one of these individuals, give yourself a break and do not worry if you cannot name such an experience.

What if you feel like you are on an endless search and never have been able to find God?

A question such as this one can be associated with what was said in the previous response. The question might also arise during those times of doubt which I mentioned from my own journey. I usually have this feeling when I am in one of those “radio silence” times. These times can be brought about by life situations where I do not feel God is “doing” what I want done. Sometimes it can feel like an endless search when I expect to arrive at a specific destination instead of understanding that I am walking down a long path. In all of these circumstances it comes down to me making the quest about me instead of about God.

Does God not want to be found by you? Are you not worthy enough to find God?

I am going to deal with both of these questions together because I think they have the same root issue. Both of these questions imply the idea that God does not want everyone to be in close connection with God. This cannot be any farther from the truth. God seeks us out long before we even begin our search for God. In fact, it is God who prompts us to even begin the search. The answer about worthiness is that according to human standards, we are far from worthy enough to find God. But from God’s perspective, we have been created to be beloved children of God. Created as beloved children gives us worthiness beyond compare to any earthly standard. God desires to be so closely connected to us that Jesus speaks of God being in us. Do not ever fear that you are not worthy enough and therefore God will not allow you to find God. Instead, know that God walks with you on this quest and will reveal God’s self to you at varied points along the journey. Just open your spiritual eyes. God is right there.

Your quest is yours only, yet you are not on this quest alone. Every person on this earth is on the same quest even when they cannot name it. God is walking beside you on this quest as well. Let us sojourn together and together we will find God.

Lack of Action

This is the last planned blog post as part of the series which I began last week. The series is intended to give reasons which I believe cause people to say the church no longer works for them. Here are the earlier posts in the series:

Why Does Church No Longer Work

Lack of Authenticity

Lack of Relationships

Lack of Language

Today’s discussion will be in regard to the church’s perceived lack of action. This perception is not due to the fact that the church does not have numerous activities within its fellowship. I would argue that the opposite is actually true. The church seems to always have something scheduled or planned. The requests for teachers and leaders, for food providers, for workers, for participants, seem to be almost never ending. The church is always busy with something. No, the lack of action refers to making a difference which impacts the world.

I want to again caution the reader that this is perception. I think it is unfair to state that the church does not have an impact on the world at times. However, I think the reason for the perception is that this is far too infrequent. The church is generally good about coming to the aid of people who are experiencing losses due to natural disasters. The response of the church toward local people who need some emergency assistance financially is alright. I would say that given the resources made available to the church, it does a fair job of responding in crisis situations. Yet is that all which calls the church into action?

When I talk to those who are walking away from the church, one of the reasons that they state is that the church often is too inward focused. As I explore what that means to them, I hear words which indicate that they wish to belong to a group who makes a difference in a visible way. These people seek a church which stands up for the groups in the world who are marginalized, ridiculed, condemned, persecuted, ostracized. They desire to be part of a church which does not act like judge and jury but instead goes outside the walls to be with those who are on the outside (of the church and society). This is the difference which they wish to see occur. When I listen to them, I hear the words of Jesus, the Christ. I hear the words of the Old and the New Testament. I hear the expectations God has always placed upon humanity.

The charge of a lack of action has nothing to do with busyness. The church is very busy, especially within its walls. This charge comes from the inactivity of the church to be a voice which challenges society’s ostracizing ways. This charge comes from the church focused on building itself up instead of building individuals up. It is a charge which unfortunately is too often true.

Lack of Language

This blog post is a continuation of the series which I began last week. The series is intended to give reasons which I believe cause people to say the church no longer works for them. Here are the earlier posts in the series:

Why Does Church No Longer Work

Lack of Authenticity

Lack of Relationships

Today, I am presenting the case that a lack of language is a reason which leads to the church no longer working in people’s lives. Let me be clear, the church uses a lot of words. However, those words are usually very difficult for people to understand unless they have had some training or education into the language of the church.

When I talk with people, I often hear them say that they feel they do not truly understand a lot of the words and terms which we use in the church. Most of these come from centuries long ago. They are not words which we use in everyday speaking. Some words have crossed over into discussions outside of the church but the understandings associated with them are very skewed or do not reflect the original intent of the word.

The late Eugene Petersen understood this was an issue over thirty years ago. In1993 he released a copy of The Message – New Testament. Petersen’s goal was to take the Bible and translate it into words that people of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century were using. Over the next nine years he would release the Old Testament translation in two sections and eventually the two Testaments together in one volume. Eugene Petersen understood that it was important for people to read the Bible in a language that made sense to them. Not a new idea since that is exactly what happened during the Protestant Reformation.

The language in which someone can read the Bible is an important piece but it cannot be the only piece. How many times do we use words such as grace, redemption, trinity, forgiveness, salvation, sin, atonement, unconditional love, or hope, yet never explain what we mean by them. What about the words we use in the building: narthex, sacristy, nave, sanctuary, altar, table, pulpit, lectern, or chalice. Again, words that we do not explain and assume everyone knows what we are talking about. The language of the church can be like a foreign language to individuals.

We need to take an example for Eugene Petersen. The church needs to translate its words into the language of today. Where an equivalent cannot be found, explanation and teaching is in order. Where we can use today’s words to describe a concept or aspect of our church space, then we need use today’s words and not the words of the sixteenth century.

Unfortunately, too many in the church seem to adopt the attitude that if a person wishes to be part of our fellowship, they need to learn the language. We expect change on the part of the individual. The problem with this view is that it presents a dividing of those who are in (the one’s who can speak the language) and those who are out (the one’s who have no understanding of the language). The bigger problem is that a large number will choose not to even attempt to learn this foreign language but instead walk out the door and find a place where they can understand what people are saying.

Lack of Relationships

I am now in the midst of a blog post series attempting to name Why Church No Longer Works. In addition to the introduction to the series, I have stated that one reason is the church has a Lack of Authenticity. Today I share my second observation which is the church has a Lack of Relationships.

Some of you may want to disagree with my observation by stating that you witness all types of relationships in the church. Your arguments might include that everyone at your church is friendly with each other and know each other on a first name basis. Another argument might be that the pastor knows every person and makes a strong point in meeting new individuals who may be visiting or new to the neighborhood. You may even state that you have been at the church a long time and watched some young adults as they have grown up, maybe even be able to tell about when the children were baptized. All these arguments, and more that I am sure you can make, certainly appear to show that there are relationships in the church. I would even agree with this point but would argue that these are only surface relationships.

What I mean by surface relationships are those type of relationships where one can state easily observable characteristics, traits, or highlights about another person but there is not a deeper knowledge. We experience these types of relationships with our co-workers, employees of a business which we frequent, or maybe even some of our neighbors. What these relationships lack is anything beyond the basic facts of a person’s life. There exists no understanding of what the individual’s hopes and fears might be. You are unable to name what struggles the person has overcome or may even still be experiencing. An ability to articulate why a person believes what she/he believes does not exist. No depth in the relationship is found.

I am sure that some of you reading this post could state to me the names of one or two individuals with who you have more than a surface relationship. However, I am confident to say that this is the exception and not the norm regarding relationships in the church. Connected to my earlier post dealing with authenticity in the church, a majority of relationships within the church are not authentic.

Why is a lack of relationships important?

In my study of the Bible and the stories about Jesus, I am convinced that it is all about relationships. We hear stories of the relationship between God and God’s creation, especially humans. There are stories about the relationships between humans, both family and strangers. Jesus spends a great deal of time discussing relationships and demonstrating how to be in relationship with others. Even our theological concept of the Trinity as interpreted from Scripture is about relationship. This indicates to me that relationships are a central theme in the Christian belief system. So relationships should be very important to the church.

If relationships are so important in our faith, the lack of them leaves us with something hollow. When we do not take the time to go beyond the surface in someone’s life, we communicate that the individual is not that important to us. Having a feeling that I am not important to others can encourage me to leave that setting in search of a place where I do feel I am important in another person’s, or group of people’s lives.

As I have read articles about what brings value to a person’s life, I have often come across statements which show a strong desire of individuals to feel like they belong. A desire exists to feel connected and meaningful in the lives of others. We were created with an inward drive to be in relationship. Humans will search long and hard to find some way to feed this drive. The drive requires more than just a sense of being known on the surface.

When the church does not offer a place for and strong encouragement to develop authentic, deep relationships, people will walk out and search elsewhere. My observation as I read through the Book of Acts and the letters found in the Bible is that these were the type of relationships which existed among the followers of Christ at the beginning. The gatherings were small and intimate. There was a sense of knowing the deep desires within the hearts of the people. A meeting of the needs of all people was emphasized, including the need to belong through relationships.

In order to correct this situation, the church is going to have to work on some important goals:

  • Create a place where trust can be established and protected
  • Remove the judgment from our structure, our sermons, our liturgies, and our statements
  • Encourage and develop times for relationships to be established, grow, and sustained
  • Practice grace above any and all rules, polity, and traditions
  • Follow the example of Jesus, the Christ

Jesus was all about relationships, maybe it is time that the church learns from Jesus and does likewise.