Friday, November 28, 2008

Being Different, Part II-- On our Knees

If there is one way to tell how sick the PC(USA) is, look at the exercise of the discipline of prayer. We pray because someone is going to check the minutes of the meeting much more often than we pray because we are moved to come together before Christ.
Prayer has always been foolishness to the world; it is doing nothing when one could be doing something. The fact that we whom Christ has called often view prayer similarly tells us just how close Cindy Rigby's description of the PC(USA) as "of the world, but not in it" truly is.
So let's get down to the nitty-gritty: what does it mean to be the change we seek? It means to truly become a people of prayer. Not five minutes before you get in bed prayer, or nodding to heaven while we read a list prayer, or the pretentious and affected prayers that pass for liturgy too often in the one hour a week we do what we are supposed to do our whole life long.
Prayer is a constant conversation with God; it is checking with God even the smallest details of our day. Prayer for the people of God is taking seriously the power of intercessory prayer, and becoming intercessors for the sick and those in need.
How many people in your congregation pray like that? How many have you taught to pray like that? How much of a model are you? Does your congregation have an active intercessory prayer list? If not, start one. Invite people into the ministry of prayer-- especially those who physically cannot give to Christ what they once had to give. Our best intercessor hasn't stood on her feet or spent much time out of the bed she lies in for 5 years. But she prays without ceasing. Prayer ministry can be taught in the home, through a family prayer circle every night. E-mail and the internet make prayer requests more reliably transmittable and accessible.
What is the first thing to do when confronting a problem? Form a committee? Organize our support/opposition? Where is that in the New Testament? First and last, it is always God. First and last, it is always Christ. First and last, it is always the Holy Spirit that will guide. Pastors who do not know the tears and sighs too deep for words in the private closet of prayer cannot lead because they cannot accurately follow Jesus Christ; where you are privately in your closet with Christ is where you will be publicly.
What would a praying congregation look like? I have a good view of one at OCPC. But what would a praying presbytery look like? I long for the day when we in the pastor's union in the PC(USA) really pray for one another. Both of you who follow this blog, I hope you know that I am always praying for you. I need your prayers, too.
Start being different-- learn to pray without ceasing.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Being Different in the PC(USA)

As a Confessing Church pastor (for those who don't know PCUSA politics, that's code for "evangelical"), I have watched and participated in the debates through the last 20 years that will determine the shape of the part of the Body of Christ that I was born into when Christ came into my life as a 14-year-old in Washington, D.C.

I am watching and listening now as the next installment of this crusade plays across the presbyteries, and I have come to a conclusion. Not only is this no way to be the Church, this is no way to stand for Christ against those who no longer seem (to me) to be brothers and sisters in the same family.

The coldness of progressive "Christianity" has always been a problem for me. All head, little heart, lots of pride masked by good deeds and good intentions. It would all be hard to take, if the same could not be said for the conservative "Christianity" that takes the opposing viewpoints and plays by the same rules.

It seems to me that both are trying to find some way back-- back to the time when the Mainline was the mainline and not a silly sideline in this culture. Progressives believe that if they just leap ahead of the culture, they will be seen as its leaders again. Conservatives believe that if they just hold on rigidly to what was handed on to them, that "being right" will translate into cultural leadership when everyone comes to their senses.

Both are wrong. There is no way back to that time-- thank God. The Church was captive in a culture that bowed to the cross, but did not follow Jesus, even if everyone was in their places with bright shining faces.

A new Church will arise out of the ashes of Christendom-- and it won't be the nightmarish vision of either of the camps that is fighting over Christendom's rotting corpse. The new Church already hears Christ's call to let the dead bury their own dead, as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:60).

The Church's addiction to power must now be broken, because power is out of the Church's reach. We are going through delirium tremens Left and Right these days-- but when the Church finally sobers up, puts away numbers and the luxuries they generate, and gets back to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a new Church will arise.
The call now is to be the change we seek to see-- to become a pilgrim Church whose knees are worn by falling on them in prayer and worship, whose hands are calloused by Christ's using them to do His work in the world, whose voice is hoarse from shouting into the din of this culture real Good News.

Friday, November 21, 2008

My Mission Statement

You go to pastors, and hear them talk about all the programs and all the numbers
and the money and all the buildings. But you almost never hear them talk
about how the lives of their people were so demonstrably different that people
had to pay attention to the cause of Christ and take it seriously.
George Barna

Until the day I die, my purpose is to be so demonstrably different that people pay attention to the cause of Christ and take Him seriously.
That means:
1. My prayer life must be always first—I must seek out Jesus in my life, my relationships, and my work. Seek FIRST the Kingdom.
2. My submission and obedience to the Lord must grow—I must trust the Word and the Holy Spirit more deeply each day so that I decrease, and He increases in me.
3. I must accept suffering, loss, humiliation as the simple cost of taking the journey. There is no resurrection without crucifixion—there is no crucifixion without pain.
4. I must fight with endurance against all the forces within me, within my culture, from my past that would pull me away from my call—I must put the world behind me if I am to keep the cross before me.
5. I must engage the world and the worldly as Jesus did—in simple authentic truth. I must accept their rejection or acceptance with my eyes firmly on Jesus, never on me.
6. I must lead others to pursue this same course with passionate conviction, so that the presence of Jesus Christ can once again be felt within this culture.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Confession is Action

When I was young and new at ministry, I thought that faithful service to Jesus Christ began with building complex institutions, proposing overtures, moving congregations between presbyteries, making well-greased machinery run flawlessly, and culminated in preaching to thousands with a television "ministry" and a couple of honorary doctorates on the wall. That would mean my life had made a difference.
What is success in ministry? The longer I live, the less sure I am that anything listed in the paragraph above causes the heart of Christ to leap for joy. All those wonderful things offer comfort to me by banishing my fears of my own insignificance and unworthiness. But the world is filled with such preachers and teachers-- Dallas is practically drowning in them. Has it changed Dallas appreciably? I would be hard-pressed to be able to say how it has, other than the fact that everybody knows those preachers' names and faces.
I find it fascinating that we don't know what Jesus actually looked like. No one ever thought of getting him to sit down, like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln did, and having a life-cast bust made, or finding a great painter to paint his picture. Surely the disciples could have found the money to pay for that. We know Caesar; we know Constantine.
But Jesus could walk up to me today, and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't know it was him. He left no army, no great crowd of disciples. The crowds were a flash in the pan-- the only people he left behind were the 12, and one of them betrayed him while the rest forsook him and fled. So why was Jesus's ministry successful in God's eyes? I'm drawn to the simple definition of work that Jesus gives in John:
Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?"Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." John 6:28-29
Confession is my primary action. I am called to believe-- which means to obey down to the last detail of my own life what the Lord tells me through the Word. That call to obedience constantly humiliates me with the reality that I cannot do even that one task, and constantly calls me to confess my need for forgiveness and mercy.
My life is lived in continuous prayer, continuous need, continuous communion. Whatever flows out of that life-giving relationship is what gives God joy.
I probably will never be a doctor of anything. I won't be on TV (I really hate the lights anyway). OCPC will probably never be a megachurch (can't tell God what to do, but with my worldly eyes, I think I'm probably right). No one on earth may have any idea who I am (but I guess I have enough vanity to be writing this-- there is work yet to be done). But my life will make the difference that Christ wants it to make if I place my life in his hands. If I can come to the end of this day and say, "Lord, whatever this day was, I lived it believing in you with all my heart, mind, and strength," that is success. That life, lived that way day by day, makes a difference.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

One Jesus

The beginning of the disintegration process in progressive theology can be traced to one key assumption: that there is a difference between “the historical Jesus” and “the Jesus of faith” presented in the New Testament. Once Jesus has been dis-integrated, torn from our understanding of the Scriptures which cannot be trusted to show us who Jesus is, then Jesus becomes very quickly, “my Jesus.”
The troubling events of the General Assembly this year rely in no small measure on this disintegrated understanding. When anyone would bring up the Scriptural support that flew in the face of cultural imperatives, they would be told that “my Jesus would never say/do such a thing,” even if the Scriptures say He did. The real Jesus is the Jesus of my experience—in essence, a figure of my imagination: my Jesus.
The Church, too, has been part of this disintegrating impulse. As soon as the Word was made flesh, controversies innumerable sprang up. Theologians came to call this series of problems the scandal of particularity: to become human, Christ had to enter a specific culture as a specific person. He was a Jew, not a Gentile; he was a man, not a woman. And each particular part of humanity, divided from the others, wishes to claim Jesus Christ as its own: our Jesus.
But there is just one Jesus Christ. We believe that the Scriptures testify to who He is from beginning to end, and that that testimony can be trusted. No culture can contain Him, even though He lived on this earth as a Jewish man. Jesus Christ IS risen—that means He lives. And He lives for one purpose, best put in his prayer in John 17:11—“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
There is no chauvinist Jesus, no feminist Jesus, no black Jesus, no white Jesus, no “my Jesus.” There is only the Lord and Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, to Whom the Scriptures testify. Born into one culture, His command transcends all cultures; for He came to earth to reunite and revivify what was divided and dead from our fall into sin. There is only one Jesus Christ known in one Book, testified to by many witnesses. Thanks be to God that He claims us.

The Reality of Redemption

No one who believes in the innate goodness of people lasts very long in ministry. The reason for this is not that ministry is hard (even though it is). No one can be at the work of redemption long who does not come face to face with the reality that for human beings it is impossible.
I have been working for almost six years now trying to cross boundaries amongst those who claim Jesus Christ as Lord, who say we worship the same Savior, yet have different colors of skin and different cultures. If I was doing this because I thought it was a good idea, I would have quit a long time ago.
Doors slam more than they open; time is wasted on dead ends and frustrated hopes. But every now and then, a door opens and small expenditures of time and love and energy come back 30 fold, 60-fold, 100-fold. Every time I come to the end of my rope, I find Jesus Christ there waiting for me.
My mentor and teacher Oswald Chambers spent a great deal of time teaching on this one central truth-- the reality of Christ's redemption, the reality of our redemption, the reality of this world's redemption. To trust in one is to trust in the others; to trust in one, our living must prove that we know that all three redemptions have already been accomplished.
I do not know whether I will ever see the congregations of Oak Cliff come together in witness and ministry. I don't know whether I will ever see the blood of Christ cleanse Dallas and this nation from its original sin of slavery. That is not what is asked of me.
"I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Current State of the PC(USA)

A tree stands by the strength of its core; trees can be alive, full of leaves and seemingly healthy when in fact they are structurally fragile and prone to collapse. The tree's core is its heartwood-- the hardest structure of the wood within it. Its growth is in the sapwood underneath the bark, but a growing tree that cannot support its weight or stand against the winds that blow around it will not be tall for long.
The PC(USA) is growing, on the fringes, but is there enough heartwood left so that it will continue to stand as it has for 200 years? I think we have all heard the loud cracks this year as the winds of this culture continue to batter us. The tree is falling because its heartwood is gone. But that does not mean it is dead, or that all who are part of its growing edge are lost.
I am not a Panglossian optimist. I see different congregations growing, but I also know that this tree is going to fall. Too many of my evangelical brothers and sisters insist that that means that all is lost-- it is not. As Isaiah sees (Isaiah 10:33-35)
This very day he will halt at Nob, he will shake his fist at the mount of daughter Zion, the hill of Jerusalem. Look, the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.
But that same God has a purpose in His destruction, for in the next breath Isaiah says that
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
The tree may fall, but the shoot will live. God is not done with us yet.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bottom Up, Inside Out

How does the PC(USA) reform itself? How will it be reborn? I have friends I talk to and facebook groups I participate in who believe that the way to reform and rebirth this denomination is to rewrite the Book of Order, to create better advertizing, to restructure the bureaucracy. I know pastors who move from theological fad to theological fad looking for the silver bullet that will bring back 1950, when everybody streamed into congregations and the company of pastors was a respected calling by everyone in this society.
That day is gone, and it's not coming back.
I think that the PC(USA) will be reformed and reborn the same way we individually are; we are changed from the inside out. Church growth folks talk about people acting their way into believing, but the New Testament demonstrates that Christ changes individuals, who then begin to act differently in the world. Jesus Christ alone changes hearts and lives; that change then is worked out into the life we live in the world.
If you want to see signs of what Jesus Christ is up to in the PC(USA), don't look to Louisville, or the NFOG task group, or any of the alphabet soup of groups that each presbytery churns out of its committees. Jesus Christ is changing the Church from the bottom up, from the inside out.
Here's the change I see from my place on the fringes: I see a congregation that was afraid of its neighborhood, afraid to pray out loud, afraid of speaking the words "Jesus Christ" in a normal conversation now going door-to-door in that same neighborhood asking neighbors "what can we pray for you?" and when they receive an answer, praying with them. I see old and young, new members and longtime members praying with the kids who now come in from around the neighborhood on Wednesdays, and sharing their faith in Jesus Christ. I see hopeless addicts who now stand with Christ, pray and study the Scriptures, who are leading others in that same hopelessness to the Source of all hope. I see a congregation in Oak Cliff that knows exactly what to do when someone comes up and says, "sir, we would see Jesus."
Race doesn't matter. Origin doesn't matter. Generation doesn't matter. Even congregation doesn't matter, as the Great Banquet Ministry becomes a bottom-up and inside-out model for ecumenical Christian witness and action.
We're not unique; we're just not in the limelight. We are speaking; we just don't have control of the microphone. Jesus Christ is reforming and rebirthing the PC(USA) from the bottom up, from the fringes in, from the inside out.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Beyond Identity

It seems that one of the most human of activities is dividing up into discrete groups. We do this on the playground, in the classroom, in neighborhoods. Oak Cliff and other "red-lined" areas of America's cities are the evidence of how profound this practice is. Whole generations are blighted by the separation that the baby boom generation has moved from just being about race and class to now include "lifestyle" segregation.
We justify this by celebrating our identities, celebrating our music, our culture, our behaviors and daring anybody to say anything against our demonstrations. And when they do, we cry out that we are being attacked, thus stimulating more fear on the part of those who understand us, and thus a blinder loyalty to the tribe. Fear rules us, no matter which side of which battle we fight on.
This cycle is not new to the post-Christendom world; it is not unique to the West. This is the same world that Christ entered-- only Christ tranformed it by his death and resurrection. Where is the Church-- not congregations, but the Church-- in a world so polarized by those who derive joy and purpose from the crusade?
Is not serving Jesus Christ losing one identity, and being born into another that is greater than race, greater than class, greater than sexual identity? "From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" 2 Corinthians 5:17-18
One of the reasons the Church of Jesus Christ grew in its first centuries was because it was known as "the third race," not Jew, not Gentile, but each and every race who no longer prided themselves on their separateness, because they were all in Christ.
Where is that Church today? Why can't we be that Church?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Hope Within Us

As Toby Brown hangs up his blogging suit, I guess it's time to try one on for size. There is too much hot air out there right now in the PC(USA), and not enough light. I hope that this blog will be salt and light to all who trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and who seek to serve Him in Dallas and beyond.
The Trinity River is the "great divide" in Dallas between rich and poor, brown skin and white skin, the comfortable past of a homogenous culture, and the thrilling adventure of the hodgepodge of cultures which is (and will soon be in all of this country) our current context. South of the Trinity is seen as a dangerous place by those who live north of it. For those of us who love the adventure that living here brings, we offer no apologies.
We are the future of America-- where there is no cultural majority, where we must learn to love one another or we will die, where the politics of division is a poison to be counteracted rather than a means to a chosen end.
We at OCPC are also a minority; we are a growing congregation inside the PC(USA). Christ is on the move here, and we will not apologize for what He is doing. As a congregation that has been desegregated (50% Anglo, 50% African-American) for 30 years, we are becoming a congregation integrated in Christ as brothers and sisters, reaching out to our Hispanic new neighbors, and watching the Lord provide the growth.
Welcome to the right side of the Trinity. God is not done with Oak Cliff, or the PC(USA) yet. Let's see where the Lord of the Church and His sword, the Word of God, shall point and lead.

One Gospel

After 9-10 centuries of making the Christian faith complex, intellectually arrogant, and difficult to understand, God seems to be simplifying things once again. Just like the simplification going on in the business world right now, God’s simplification procedure is neither fun nor bloodless; there is a high cost to it. But God’s purposes accomplished by these harrowing crises are the hope of the world.
So what is God up to right now? I wish I knew. But I can see small glimpses of something new being born; through the rest of the year, I will take this space to share what little I can see.
The first thing I see is that the Lord is pushing us to see the Gospel, not our gospel. In Christendom, the Church sold its soul to become a cultural mascot of the various tribes who were willing to force on all their members a superficial obedience to the Lord’s commandments. The Church became “branded” by tribe, by theological nuance, and then within the competitive environment of American capitalism, became branded by race, class, socio-economic level. All these divisions brought arguments and persecutions based around the false premise that our version was “the real Gospel,” while theirs was a “false Gospel.”
As Paul tried to make clear to the Galations, this thinking is false and destructive. There is only one Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ—and everybody has gotten it a little bit wrong. The one Gospel is a radical, unfair and incomprehensible forgiveness on God’s part of anyone who will accept it. This forgiveness is not cheap; it is bought by God with the blood of His only son. There are no preconditions to accepting this forgiveness, this new life—but the transaction is as radical as the gift itself: life for a life. To accept the gift, I must surrender the one thing I truly possess (for a while): my life.
There is no Black Gospel; there is no White Gospel; there is no Presbyterian Gospel, Baptist Gospel, or Methodist Gospel. There is one Message, shared and seen from different angles by different people. But if the Church is to emerge with its Spirit-led missionary voice in this culture, we must all come to see we preach one Gospel.