Monthly Archives: November 2013

Study Leave

I’ve never had this before, as an official part of my “benefits” as a minister.  While previous supervisors have been fine with me attending conferences and encouraged me to read regularly this was my first day taking “study leave.”
Having this specific time helps me to be more deliberate in what I read and gives opportunity for dedicated thought verses reading different things here and there.  So I headed to the Crown Bakery, which has been in business for 50+ years, and staked out a table in the sun for some sustained reading.  Here are some of the highlights:

Calvin’s Institutes, is not only thoughtful and pastoral but also eloquent and witty:
“that faith may find in Christ a solid ground of salvation, and so rest in him, we must set out with this principle, that the office which he received from the Father consists of three parts. For he was appointed both Prophet, King, and Priest; though little were gained by holding the names unaccompanied by a knowledge of the end and use. These too are spoken of in the Papacy, but frigidly, and with no great benefit the full meaning comprehended under each title not being understood.”

“But as I study brevity, I will be satisfied with a single passage, one, however, in which, as in a bright mirror, we may behold a complete image of our nature.”      (Italics mine, quoted from 2.15.1, 2.3.2)

A dissertation on “The Prayer Driven Church Plant”  by David A. Slagle

“The planter must choose to devote energy to the daily task list or choose that which is better. To sacrifice prayer in favor of activity, however, is to sacrifice unity (John 17:11), boldness (Acts 4:31), a harvest (Matt. 9:38), growth (Eph. 1:17), open doors (Col. 4:3), wisdom (Jas. 1:5), courage (2 Thess. 2:16), and peace (Phil. 4:6-7).”

“The trial alone did not have the power to humble the planter, but the trial in concert with prayer created an environment for God to transform his servants. These trials seemed to be a greater motivator than beliefs. While almost all of the pastors confessed an ardent belief in the importance of prayer both before and after the planting process, the trial of church planting was the necessary catalyst for change in their prayer practices.”

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Playing god…

A few weeks ago I attended a minister’s forum at which Andy Crouch was speaking about churches having a bigger picture of what God might do in their cities and how churches can participate in the overarching good of their communities.  While this sounds like a generic, even bland summary statement, the content was anything but generic or bland.  One of the highlights was sitting at a table with ten other pastors from Worcester and looking at the city through some of the lenses that arose from the materials.

Another spark came when Andy described injustice as originating in our attempts to play god.  He unfolded this more, describing our attempts to increase our own power and security while diminishing any weakness or vulnerability.  In the book of Genesis when Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent he promises our first parents that they will be like God and not die.

This is the continued promise that whispers in our ears and leads us to exploit others.  It says, “you can have power and knowledge without cost.”  Andy spoke of a visit to India where a Christian organization was working to free children from forced labor.  In this setting, the perpetrators use misinformation, empty promises, and threats to keep families in debt and their children in endless labor.  Rather than engage poverty, ethical business practices, or even grapple with the compassion that comes from seeing these children as humans – equals in some manner – they are pushed down.  In the context of this exploitation the lives of these children and to some degree their families are ruled in a manner that stretches beyond the bounds of human authority.

The danger he said is of a relief organization entering the situation with the “wisdom” and “power” to throw out the oppressors yet they end up playing god as well.  Dispensing aid, education, and relief can create its own dependency and cycle of control.  Yes, a kinder “god” has come to rule over the people, but if the power is all on one side and the vulnerability on the other the same dynamics persist.

We just studied the letter to Philemon from the apostle Paul last night with our group in Worcester.  I learned so much in the course of preparation and was struck how everyone involved in the events surrounding the letter must let go of power, love the other, and entrust themselves to God.  Without going into the details, the three main characters each risk uncertainty and experience vulnerability  putting their reputation, safety, and financial well being a in someone else’s hands.  

In contrast, I think about the continued media attention on the fate of Richie Incognito of the dolphins and an excerpt from a USA Today article

In previous interviews with reporters, Incognito and his father indicated other students ridiculed him for being overweight as a child, especially during sixth grade in Glendale, Ariz. His father, Richie Sr., a Vietnam veteran, told NFL.com that he gave his son advice: “If you let anyone give you (expletive) now, you’re going to take (expletive) your entire life.”

 Anytime something goes wrong in the life of a public figure there is the pop psychologist in each of us that wants to speculate on his childhood or some other underlying motives that lead to the downfall.  (Is this another manifestation of playing god?  I am wise, understanding this person who publicly blundered but am not like them in their downfall).
In this scenario though, the dynamics of power and vulnerability are right there in his own words.  However, I wonder if the NFL’s treatment of Incognito will perpetuate the situation.  Will they step in as with the wisdom and power of a beneficent god and “justly” force Incognito out?  Will there be any vulnerability from an institution that turns a blind to aggression until it crosses a certain line (read the rest of the USA today article and you’ll see that this is not an isolated incident.)  In some ways each of us wants to play god – to have the power and never the pain.  Yet, when we do so we exploit or harm each other and ultimately fight an impossible battle against the true and living God.

I am amazed as through the bible and through the cracked lens of humanity I Jesus continues to show his uniqueness  He is the one who forgoes power and takes on weakness to give power and life to his enemies.  Everyone else plays god and though Jesus is God he lets himself be treated like “expletive.”  This is an incredibly unexpected and subversive means of salvation.  I need to see it filter more into my life.


Floors and toilets

In talking with a group of pastors about the history of Worcester, one recounted an excerpt from an article he read describing the role of racism in Worcester.  During a time of black migration to northern cities the major unions (and along with them ethnic communities and their churches) united to tell African Americans that there were no jobs here, only floors and toilets.   To this day Worcester has a relatively low percentage of African-Americans when compared with Boston or Springfield.

In contrast I think of a recent conversation with a pastor of an intentionally multi-ethnic church.  The most significant point of our conversation came when he spoke of Revelation 5 where people from every tongue, tribe, and nation gather together in worship around God’s throne.  He then asked the question of whether it was sufficient for all the different people of our communities to gather separately in their own churches for worship or if this passage, and others, should push us towards something more.  Is a multi-ethnic church that in someway reflects the community a good idea or a biblical mandate?  As I was thinking through this conversation I came across this passage in the book of Isaiah:

In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the LORD of hosts in the land of Egypt. When they cry to the LORD because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and deliver them. And the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering, and they will make vows to the LORD and perform them. And the LORD will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the LORD, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them.

In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.

In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.”  Isaiah 19:19-25

Here the historic enemies of God’s people (Egypt and Assyria) are not simply defeated or subjugated but drawn to the living God.  These enemies become one with God’s people and are drawn together by God’s mercy into worship.  If someone were looking at this from the outside the only conclusion would be that that God of Israel is alive and real.  Our hope for Worcester is that our church will in some way reflect the city’s diversity and demonstrate that God is real.  There is a common savior who unites people from all types of backgrounds in worship around his throne.

I was recently speaking with a pastor who is about a year ahead of us in establishing a church in Worcester.  One of the wonderful aspects of the work has been the diverse group of people God has brought together.  When I asked him how this happened, he simply replied that they prayed.  They wanted their church to reach different people, asked God to lead them in this effort, and he has.

I hope that in his Church God is writing a different, and better story of hospitality and welcome in this city that transcends race and background.


The shape of the cross

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Which flowers fit at the front of a church service?  This is not simply a question of aesthetics.

In these fading flowers I see hints of my impermanence, weakness, and readiness to wilt.  There are echoes of beauty and a garden in which I belonged.

Yet, if this were the central display (unlike this incredible array) you’d begin to wonder about the church.  Are they cheap, is there something wrong, did someone forget to switch the flowers or are they indifferent to aesthetics?

I continue to think about the foundation we are laying for a new church in Worcester and see the continued temptation to lay a foundation other than the cross of Jesus.  On the cross the world’s violence, ugliness, anger, and injustice is clearly seen as humankind strikes back against its maker.  The cross also tells of our complete inability to rescue ourselves, make our way to God, or set things right by our own power, goodness or wisdom.  Only the seeming weakness, foolishness, and injustice of a crucified savior can reverse course – healing the human soul, mending a fractured world.  It is easy to look for something more attractive, progressive, quantifiable, and understandable than the cross.  There is the longing for a church that is all beauty and no ugliness, strength without weakness, and wisdom without paradox.
Am I content to place the wilting flowers at center stage?  Do I plan on suffering and weakness as the means for knowing God’s presence and blessing others?  Do I expect God to reveal himself to me and others in the midst of evil and sin?  This is what transpired on the cross.

The cross was not the end of the story. In the Christian scriptures Jesus’ death and resurrection are held together as the two sides of a single coin, yet it is much easier for me to imagine the resurrection shaping my ministry.  I think of victory over sin and death.  I think of God’s restorative, live giving power unleashed in this world and imagine a church alive – resplendent with flowers in full bloom.  Yet, this life only comes after passing through the grave.  It is first the cross and then the crown.

I think specifically of the phrase, “ministering out of weakness,” which different pastors have said to me.  One pastor spoke of the unexpected death of his son and the significant ministry arising from being cared for as a participant in a grief group.  This does not somehow make the suffering good, or more worthwhile, but shows a small piece of the cross where the mystery of God’s grace is at work.

How will I strive to hold onto the cross and have it shape our church?  Probably not in the way I expect

*Many of these thoughts are tied to concepts drawn from Martin Luther who speaks of a “theology of the cross” versus a “theology of glory.”  Here’s a brief sketch which I’ve appreciated.

 

 


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