Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What Do You Want?

At the men's coffee/bible study this morning we were talking about the healing story in Matthew 20:29-34. Two blind men sitting alongside the road shouted out to Jesus, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!". The crowd told them to shut up so that made them shout all the louder. Blind beggars who were probably on that spot day after day were not going to let a Son of David pass by without taking a shot at mercy, and hopefully, money. That's what they were begging for. Jesus stopped and called them over. "What do you want?", he asked.

What do you want? That's a question that will handled in many different ways this graduation season. We are used to graduation speakers challenging us to go for what it is we really want. Reach for your dreams! If you don't do it, no one will do it for you. I often wonder how that plays in other places. Can you tell a Haitian to reach for his or her dreams. How far does her reach go when unemployment is around 70%. Even in our country hard times are predicted for grads this year due to a very challenging job environment. Many people will find work at other than their dream job. Some may go back to school incurring more debt. Some will find the military a good option if not their first choice.

I hear some Christians taking this question from Jesus and turning it into a promise that he will give us what we want if we tell him we truly want it. Since when does he give us what we want? I thought we were seeking after his will which may be exactly what we don't think we want.

A couple years ago, I read a book about a man who was blinded in childhood. He learned to "see" very well without his eyes. He traveled, was CEO of a major company, and did all kinds of outdoor activities including riding a bike! When he learned of a new process that gave him some hope of becoming sighted, he followed up on it. He had the procedure and follow up treatments and counseling. He was able to see again but he found out it was a complicated process to learn again to see. The coordination of seeing with brain development is highly complex. His brain had to learn to process new data from what his eyes were telling it. It was not easy and for a long time he struggled. It was harder for him to see than it had been not to see. If I recall correctly, the procedure eventually failed and he returned to his unsighted life once more.

So the gift of sight does not come without certain limitations, as well. There is no way of knowing how long the blind men in Jesus' story had been blind. No way of knowing what they were going to have to struggle with after they became sighted. But, it was not going to be an easy life. After all, how long had it been since they worked, or what could they do to support themselves other than begging?

The story ends not with them going out to enjoy a sighted life and living happily ever after, but with them following Jesus. When Jesus asked them what they wanted, that was not their first thought - to follow Jesus. It was their second, after they received their sight. Jesus gave them what they wanted but maybe if they had had more time to think about it they would have asked for something else.

Jesus does not often give us what we want. No one does. I don't think we usually get what we want. Good thing. If we did, we might be much worse off than we think we are. Who knows what they really want anyway?

This graduation season there will be many people pondering that question. What do I want to do with my life. If someone asked me what can I do for you? What would I say? There is nothing - not even sight- that will solve all our problems and make us fulfilled. No dream job, or mate, or "fix" for whatever we are challenged by. What Jesus wants is for us to follow him. We might ask for any number of other things, try out any number of different paths, be healed of any number of personal challenges, be involved in any number of relationships - but the best way to go about life is to put following Jesus before everything else, and all these things will be added unto you.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Faith Battles

I've been reading Susan Wise Bauer's History of the Medieval World. It is volume two of her history of the world! Who undertakes to write a history of the world?! If you read her bio at her website of the same name, you'll see she is one busy woman. Mother, wife, teacher, speaker, author and owner of a working farm! And now author of volume two of a world history. Her book is good for an overview. It is a fast paced read. Not too many details but lots of names and places, and battles. Is that all ancient people did, fight? Looks like it. And since this volume begins with Constantine, it is mostly Christians doing the fighting. They did a lot of theologizing, too. There were important issues to be decided about the incarnation, the two natures of Christ and Christ's equality with God. And then they fought over these issues, as well. One thing you can say is that the early church took its theology seriously. Arianism was a big threat in the church then. That was the belief that Jesus was less than God, and created by God, since God was one. Nestorianism was a big threat, too. Biship Nestorious of Constantinople, taught that there were two separate natures co-exisiting in Christ something like "two different colors of marbles in a jar." The Monophysites believed that there were two natures mystically united in Christ and we cannot split apart those natures in our rational thinking. The Nestorians, somewhat more rationalistic, thought we could. The Monophysites won the battle and Nestorians were branded heretics. They were never wiped out however and reemerged years later as the Syrian Orthodox Church.

There were fights over the nature of the Church, too. In the strong North African church many clergy handed over their Scriptures as a means of recanting their faith under the stress of the Diocletian persecution. Thus, their lives were spared. Not all the clergy did this and some of them lived through the persecution. They were incensed to learn that one of the clergy who did recant his faith was going to be made Bishop of Carthage. They made the point that because of what he did, any official church acts like baptisms, communions,weddings, or ordinations, etc, would be contaminated. His would not be a pure church because he was not pure. Donatus Magnus believed that only holy men could convey the grace of God to the church. His fellow protesters were called Donatists. This set off an important theological debate: how is God's grace mediated to sinful people? Augustine, took the position, that it was impossible for men to purify God's church. "No man can make his neighbor free from sin because he is not God.", Augustine said. God makes his grace available to people because He wills to do so, not because of the character of the man who occupies the official position. The Donatists were the first of many Believers who tried to purge the church of the unrighteous and unworthy. Augustine wrote that the church would always be a "mixed body" of true believers and false and "it was not for man to separate the good from the bad. Only at the end of time, when Christ returned and all things were set right, would the frauds be winnowed out." Bauer points out this was not just arguing about some of the finer points of theology. From this conflict would come Inquisitions, heresy trials, English Puritans and - we might add - all manner of denominations trying to "out righteous" the rest ( from First Baptist to Second Baptist, to Conservative Baptist, to GARB Baptist, to First Fundamentalist Baptist of the King James Version 1612 - don't laugh - I actually pastored in a town with all of those Baptists trying to get purer and purer. Of course, I pastored the least pure!) . Bauer concludes: "the Donatists insisted on creating an identity they could control and a community that was thoroughly well defined - without ambiguity, without uncertainty."

And so it goes, often the debates turned ugly and violent. The emperors became involved. Church and state were a tight mix. Reading Bauer you get the impression Christendom was all a huge battleground. And it was to an extent greater than we realize. Yet, in Bauer, you get hints too of ordinary lay persons living in hard times and hanging onto their faith, and faithful clergy who were trying to hammer out the meaning of the gospel for their turbulent times as well as care for the flock. In 386, the emperor's mother, Justina, who had feuded for years with Bishop Ambrose (of Milan, Italy) over Arianism ordered Ambrose to hand over one of Milan's churches to be used exclusively by Arian Christians. Ambrose refused. On Palm Sunday weekend, she sent a goon squad to take over the church he was serving and make that one Arian. Ambrose was teaching a class of converts getting them ready for an Easter baptism when Justina's troops showed up and starting remaking the church all around him. He ignored them and finished his teaching. In fact, he never left. He began a marathon preaching mission telling the congregants that the emperor did not rule God's church. There were anti-Arian riots in the streets. Large numbers of Christians of all persuasions were arrested. Finally, before things got really ugly, the emperor withdrew the troops but he made it clear the war over Arianism was not over.

Still there was Ambrose in the midst of the turmoil brewing between the state and the church doing what he was called to do: discipling the faithful. And in those violent, turbulent times, there were many others living their lives, keeping their heads down, keeping their prayers going up, keeping the faith, serving the cause of Christ. Has there ever been an easy time to serve Christ faithfully? I doubt it. But good lessons here: God keeps His Church, in spite of it all. And knowing that, we can keep the Faith.

"Character" Studies

What to make of the Ben Roethelsberger case? Tim Egan wrote an opinion piece in the NY Times this week that exposed (pun intended) the star quarterback's behavior as extreme and unacceptable. More than that, he questioned the NFL, and professional sports for the celebrity-athlete syndrome it has perpetuated. And the advertising community of which Nike is chief supporter and perpetuator. Nike stands by its athletes, including Tiger Woods and Ben R., apparently, sick, socially unacceptable behavior notwithstanding. There are photos from the night of Ben R's latest alleged sexual assault where Ben is posing with the local law enforcement officials at or near the bar where the alleged assault (I use the word alleged although the 500 page plus Georgia investigation report of the incident leaves no doubt what happened - only that the evidence retrieval was so botched no criminal case could be supported). Celebrity-athletes are larger than life and seem to be able to pretty much get away with whatever they want. The world with all its pleasures are there for the picking. Including underage girls, apparently. I have heard commented that the girls knew what they were doing, and they are hardly victims. This line of thought makes about as much sense as saying that a bunch of teens who climb into a car with a drunk driver who then crashes and kills all involved are to blame for what happened. Ben R. is much older, much bigger and was reinforced with bodyguards who apparently came to his aid and not the underage and drunk woman's aid. No doubt who the victim(s) are. And who the predator was.

So the NFL acted by suspending Big Ben for six games which can be reduced to four for "good behavior". What does that mean? What constitutes good behavior for Ben? Holding the door open for women? Ben's problem - as well as professional sports - is one of entitlement. This week is the NFL draft. It is held at Music City Hall in NYC with the seats filled. It is on ESPN in prime time. The first round picks stand to make millions of dollars. They are featured as celebrities already. Who is going to clue them in on what they can have and can't have. Will Ben R's suspension "send a message"? Probably not when the situation is largely our fault. The fan's fault. At the NFL draft, most of the crowd as they cheered and jeered (when Tim Tebow was selected #25 by the Broncos, a chorus of "Tebow sucks" could be heard), sported NFL jerseys, painted faces, and team caps. Fans turn out and make the draft must see tv! Even the NFL combine was SRO! We can't get enough pro sports. Or big time college sports - the NCAA basketball championship just announced an expanded tournament schedule of 68 teams with, of course, an expanded mega million dollar tv contract, as well. Fans buy the sports video games and play the fantasy sports leagues contributing more millions to the professional sports industry. Fans seem more than willing to suspend any reasonable expectations for "character" when it comes to their favorite sports personalities. We have long since passed the era when our sports figures were supposed to be "role models." Charles Barkley pretty much put an end to that.

Tim Tebow was drafted #25 surprising many so-called expert commentators who saw him going much lower due to what had been described as his faulty mechanics. On ESPN's draft show the point made by the so-called experts was for all the talk about Tebow's "character" it isn't worth much if he doesn't get on the field. Point being: you have to be a leader by your field performance before "character" matters. So, "character" only matters if your a winner. Huh? You gotta love Coach Jon Gruden who lends so much sanity to the otherwise unwise cast of so-called experts. He said, guys, any coach would love to have this guy in the locker room, on the team, at practices, in the games, on the bench; whatever, he is a winner who has "character". There is much to love in the games we play and watch. They hold a mirror up to our lives. "Character" matters no matter what you do. You can't win without it.

Servant Leaders

John Goldingay makes an interesting point in his book on Old Testament interpretation (Old Testament theology, volume 1). Discussing the the times of the Judges, which if you're looking for a text on leadership, you might want to look somewhere else. Unless you want to know how not to lead! He says the stories of Gideon, Jephtah, Samson, etc, generally show how leaders share in and encourage the moral and social disorder they were supposed to restrain. Their failures as leaders are especially striking since they follow good leaders like Moses and Joshua. His point is this: Moses and Joshua are not called leaders in the Bible, but servants. And the Judges are called leaders but not servants. After Joshua there is no "servant of the Lord" again until Samuel. Beware of leadership texts and leadership seminars. We do not need more leaders, Goldingay suggests, we need more servants! Lord, save us from leaders! Especially in the church. Send us servants of God!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Piper's Decision

[I have been plagued by error messages from Google while trying to blog recently - that's why there was nothing last week. So I will try again and see if the plague is over]

John Piper, the "famous" Bethlehem Church pastor from Minneapolis surprised his large congregation and the wider Evangelical world by announcing an 8 month leave of absence from his ministry last week. It was not only the announcement of the leave but the reasons given for it that turned heads. He talked about needing a spiritual and emotional reality check. He spoke about "sipping from the poisonous cup of fame and notoriety". He said he needed some time to check back into the important relationships in his life. It sounded like his relationship with his wife (of 41 years) had become somewhat perfunctory ( he said he was her "rock" but she needed for him to be more emotionally connected than that). He said more in his sermon on March 28 which you can read in entirety on his website.

Piper is a well known pastor/preacher and author. More so than most of us. Yet, his announcement rings true for many pastors I would guess. Piper spoke of dealing with issues of pride and idolatry. After more than 30 years in the ministry he sounds like he is dealing with issues of burnout too. He told his church he was going to fast from all speaking, writing, blogging, tweeting, facebooking, etc. Total pull back from what had been his life. Not much was said about what he was going to do. But it will be a radical change. And hopefully a refilling. He said he would like to stay in ministry for another four or five years when he returns.

Pastors are in the "public" eye all the time. In a small town it is hard to "not" be the pastor. Whether you are in church or Safeway or the gym, you are Pastor ____. You are "on" 24/7. You are never just you. Few people know who you really are and what is going on in your life. Few really want to. Most people are more comfortable with what they think you should be. And they seem to know that there is nothing wrong in your life. After all, you are the pastor! Sometimes you forget who you are, too, and you fall into the pastoral role with your spouse and family. You are not real. You are not engaged wholly with the significant people in your life. You are used to meeting expectations, even at home. This is not a healthy way to relate and will catch up with you over time. But when do you have time. You are always on call, even on so-called vacations. Often, there is not enough time or money to get away for very long.

You are in a visible role of public leadership. You are expected to be an authority in Biblical and theological matters. You are expected to produce every week and as someone said you are the often the main course of dinner in many homes after the Sunday service.

You are expected to solve problems in the church and in people's lives. You are not expected to rock the boat. You are expected to be a wise advisor for all ages of people who are experiencing all manner of crises. You are not expected to have any problems of your own. If you do, who would you go to?

Your children are expected to be a cut above others just as you are. You are expected to have a model marriage. You are not expected to need much money or spend it on things other people do. You are a humble servant. You and your family live in a fishbowl. Sometimes you live in church provided housing. You are not like other people. You depend on the welfare of the church. If your home needs something maybe a work team will show up to get it done. In the fastest and cheapest way possible. Often, you are not consulted. It's not your home.

Sometimes you get caught up in church fights. You are supposed to take a side but if you do the other side can tear you up. You get worn down.

Then there is your own relationship with God. It is confusing at times. Do you relate to God as a pastor? Is God's love more real when you are having a ministry success ( when you are said to be "anointed by God") Have you somehow let God down when you're experiencing a ministry failure ( is God telling you something about something missing in your life?) Would God still love you if you were not a pastor? Its a scary thing to contemplate who you might be before God if you are not a pastor. Would God be as impressed with you? Or would you be abandoning your call, Jonah like. Look what happened to him! Are you reading God's word for sermon material or is it still a very real conversation between you and Him? Do you have time for long periods of prayer and Scripture meditation or are you grabbing just enough to make it through the week?

I don't know, of course, what Piper's issues are. I think whatever they are - they are probably common to most pastors. I know what he is doing is hard - pulling away from an intense and involved ministry life - but it is absolutely important. Locally, I noticed that the director of the Brother Frances Shelter was awarded a grant for a lengthy sabbatical from the Rasmussen Foundation. Part of the grant was the condition that he have no contact with the Shelter while he is away. That sounds like what Piper has in mind. And it is hard to do. We are replaceable. When we start to think and act like we are not, then it is time to get away. I applaud Piper's decision. Though I don't know what he has planned, I have a suggestion or two. Take enough time so you can get into the rhythm of life outside pastoral ministry. Go somewhere where you can just be who you are. Where no one knows you. Spend time rediscovering things you love to do: a walk on the beach, a long hike, camping, bike riding, reading. Enjoy God again. Worship in churches that are outside your tradition. Read Scripture as conversation with God. Get to know God again without your pastor's hat on. Find different ways to serve. Take care of the house. Build something. Give your wife and kids your undivided attention. In a nutshell, be present to those you really care about. It may be awhile since you have done that.