Friday, July 27, 2007

What is Happening to Churches of Christ

I am a preacher in a Church of Christ.
As such, I am a small player in the middle of a very special story. It is a story that began long, long before I arrived on this planet and will continue long after I am gone. While I am not talking about the blockbuster-mega-hit, the "story of God" unfolding, I am talking about a minor scene in that story that is often called the Restoration Movement.
After Christ's death, burial, resurrection and ascension, his followers went about spreading the good news of his life, mission, heart, and work all over the known world, which caused a variety of reactions within societies, nations, religions, and individuals. The greatest reaction was the wholesale belief in this Jesus Christ, and those that did so decided to follow him (that is, his teachings, his heart, his mission). When they did, their lives would obviously change and they would speak of all kinds of internal revolution...peace, passion, joy (even in the midst of suffering), compassion, self-responsibility, freedom, forgiveness (received and given), gratitude, and more. The word that was thrown around to describe it was often the Greek word "ZoĆ«", that is "life".
These people who followed Christ considered themselves related ("the church" being one of their titles), not by family blood, but by the blood of Jesus Christ that was shed when he was martyred because his steadfast love for people flew in the face of the human governments, religious traditions and lifeless legalisms that were being followed at the time. The love and freedom of Jesus, if followed by humanity, would take the power away from men leading those groups, and they were very used to the perks of power and the emotional securities that came from attaching their eternal salvation to their rule following.
Anyway, the cliff notes are: the church repeated history by getting increasingly organized and institutionalized, and then packed with human leaders who (again?!) got used to the perks of power and emotional securities that came from attaching their eternal salvation to this new "Christian" rule following. Ever since, there has been a struggle among Jesus followers to figure out the "true way" of Christ. The universal (catholic means universal) church has always had it's true-hearted lovers of God and it's control-freaks with in, with representatives of every degree in between. But "The Great Reformation" is the term used to describe the public and dramatic battles between and among people who were, and I use this term loosely, "in the church". There was already a philosophical split between the East and West among the ancient Christians (Catholic in the West and Orthodox in the East), but within the Western Catholic church, a more stark and even more violent split occurred between the Catholic church and those protesting the Catholic church (called "protestants"). I will scoot quickly on to this very day by merely saying that the large group of protestors has divided and divided in the (mostly) honest pursuit of Christ's "true way" and there are now an astronomical number of "Protestant" movements and groups of churches.
The Restoration Movement was and is one of those groups. It's movements champions had little desire to be seen as the movement's "leaders" really (I'm being gracious here, they were, after all, men). Their truest heart was sincerely that Christ be its leader. It seemed to them that every division of Protestants had their individual statements of belief (or "creeds"), and desiring to unify all believers, they proposed that we use the Bible alone as our "creed". A beautiful and romantic idea that would hopefully lead to unity, agreement, and the fellowship of all believers.
While they (and I can start saying "we" now) never wrote down an individual creed, and we all had deep agreement to use the Bible as our source for discovering God's truth, we still found ourselves dividing over how to INTERPRET the Bible. Who knew that so many men, all seeing eye to eye on using the Bible, could have so many differing opinions and interpretations based on how they didn't see eye to eye on how to approach the Bible and plumb it's riches? This has resulted, tragically, in countless divisions among those of us who are in The Restoration Movement. It's over-simplifying, but generally speaking, there are three groups (Disciples of Christ, Christian Churches, & Churches of Christ) in the Restoration Movement, at least in America, and...
I am preacher in a Church of Christ.
I said all of that because I just read the very humble but observant writing of a man named Joe Beam entitled "What is Happening to Churches of Christ." I found myself so "explained" in his birds-eye-view snapshot that I am compelled to share it with you, my friends, in hopes of 1) being more understood, and 2) helping you explain yourself. Here's the link, if you are interested:
And if you are interested in that, you may be interested in posting your answer to this question (that will make sense to you only if you read Joe's thoughts):
What group (zealots, satisfied, searching, cautious, open, exasperated) are you in?
One final note: For those of you, my friends, who haven't the slightest idea about what Joe and I are speaking of, don't bother learning about our church history...only learn about Christ...his heart, his mission, his priorities, his character...his life. That's what we are trying to do.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Same and Different

"What do you and I have in common?" - a great question from King David
"Rich and poor have this in common: The LORD is the Maker of them all." - Old Proverb 
"No temptation has seized you except what is common to man." - St. Paul
"When you can find yourself, no matter how difficult or inconvenient or painful the search, in every other human being alive, you will love like Christ." - Yours truly
On the surface and superficial level of existence, every single person is brilliantly different. Beautifully different skin tones, facial features, hair colors, ages, postures, and so much more make the company of mankind a constantly moving, creative, and visual work of art. At this level, we are each and every one different.
Go a level deeper, and you will find the social and cultural level of existence. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of these, but since they are communal in nature (that is, each one is shared by a group of people), there is a level of "sameness" with in each group, and a level of "difference" between each group. It is fascinating to go across national borders, continental boundaries, or just "across the tracks" to explore and experience the different societal norms and group assumptions. At this level, we are the same as some people, and different from others.
Go a level deeper, and there is the personality level of existence. You know those personality surveys? They expose, in a useful (if generic) fashion, the existence of different "personality traits". While no one knows for sure how many of these there are (it ranges from 4 to 16, generally, on the tests that I am aware of...but even they acknowledge an infinite amount of 'range possibilities'). However, broadly speaking, you and I could both be explained by our personality makeup (at least a little bit). At this level, we are the same as some people and different from others.
All of the levels leading up to this one, more or less, happen TO people (in other words, you don't choose what race, society, or personality you are born into). But go a level deeper, the preference and behavior level of existence, and you cross a line into the realm of our "ability to choose". Admittedly, our preferences and behaviors are shaped by the other levels, but we are not stuck with them. Our preferences are ours to alter. Our behaviors are ours to transform. We only need to stop explaining (or excusing) ourselves based on our superficial, societal, and personality differences, and instead start understanding ourselves through the deepest, common level of existence.
I think the Bible would call it the heart level. Here, in this the deepest realm of humanity, we are all the same. We have the same needs, desires, wants, longings, and cares...things like freedom, care, acceptance, wholeness, happiness, joy, peace, hope. All of these have "love" as their root, and while they are all fulfilled and manifested in different ways at the superficial level (based in large part to society and personality differences), you will be able to recognize them (or people striving to achieve them) when you view things from the heart.
The heart - this is the level that Christ is trying to get to. This is the level at which healing and restoration and reconciliation takes place. This is the home of forgiveness, both the given and accepted kind. It is here, within the human being, that the Kingdom (or 'rule') of Heaven is located. This is the level that, when it is touched by Christ, behavior and preferences get transformed into his very own image.
And this happens regardless of our personality differences, cultural differences, and superficial differences.
When a group of people's hearts are like Christ's heart, Christ will express his "heart-level-sameness" in an infinite amount of "surface-level" ways. It is beautiful chemistry! It is like the working of the human body, each part different superficially, but all made up of the same stuff...bone, skin, blood, cartilage...and all connected to the same head (and heart).
May our churches become home to ever-widening ranges of superficial, cultural, and personality differences. And may that happen because our churches are of Christ...going for the salvation of every life and heart...the kind that we all commonly need.
Is this right? Is there a level at which humans can make assumptions about humans, speaking with compassion and authority to one another there, because at that level we are all the same?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

"How" to experience God

An "On Becoming Truer" subscriber asks, "I long for an intimate relationship with God. But for over 20 years now, I have struggled with HOW.  Yes, I am saved.  But from that day - no one has ever been able to really explain how to build on it.  What to do after the baptism.  I have asked friends, fellow church-goers, and ministers.  They only say "read the bible" or start in "the gospels, read a little each day" and pray. I can't tell you how many devotionals and Bible lessons I have had through the years. How many times I've "set aside" time to spend in the Bible - only to find myself just sitting there wondering "now what?" I need more explanation."
This is the million dollar question, isn't it? How? How do I develop true oneness with God? I have probably answered this question for myself and for others a dozen different ways...each one depending on my stage of life, experiences to that point, and understanding of God. I appreciate the question, not so much because I can answer it, but because it allows me to see how my answer has changed. I expect it to change more, but here is my current answer to the question, "How do I experience deeper oneness with God?"
The feeling of oneness and closeness with God requires: 
Expectation - When you read, live, pray, go to work, interact with family, friends, strangers...I have found that the expectation that God is interacting with me is necessary for the interactions to be seen, felt, heard or noticed in anyway. My experience is that this expectation is something I have had to first believe in, then cultivate into something I am regularly/constantly aware of, then remembering because I am always being opposed in the noticing.
Relationships - The most important command, Jesus said, is to love God and love others. How much of your life can be explained or justified by these two priorities? Which part of your life (including religious/spiritual activities like Bible reading, prayer, or service) is not in service to the relational agenda of God? Honestly, I don't want any activity in any part of my day to not be in subjection to my hearts purpose of loving God or loving others. I think this alignment with the command that Jesus said all the Bible hangs on gives us a lens through which to read the Bible.
Transformation - What is the ultimate purpose of God for me personally? Outside of my eternal life with Him after my death, what is the life He wants for me now? It is Christ. He wants to transform me into the image of Jesus Christ. He is after my spirit, my heart, my attitudes, my behaviors, my priorities, and my mission. God is making me more like Christ every day. Tuning in to this sends me to the Bible, to the people in my life, and to the circumstances that come my way looking for Jesus with wide and eager eyes!
The ideal of becoming like Christ is the highest one available to human being. It is a constant adventure, and you are always in the middle of the perfect circumstances through which to be shaped, because of how good and focused God is on this end.
The intimacy required, with God and your fellow man, will demand all the love available to you supernaturally through God's Holy Spirit. "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you," our teacher and rabbi says. Summoning forth the vulnerability before God and before those He sends your way is inner work. Contemplating (as opposed to "studying" or "reading") the implications of Jesus' teachings will take you to the thresholds of human possibility, confront your unbelief, and demand faith to go farther.
That leads to depth. The great change in my life was the focus on depth, not breadth. I'm not interested in learning more stuff about the Bible as much as I am interesting in understanding and assimilating and becoming the stuff that I have already learned. I'm not as interested in more people being "in my church" as much as I am interested in the people "in my church" taking their next step into Christlikeness. I'm not as interested doing more stuff in my Christian service as I am in doing less stuff more deeply. I believe that the focus on depth can lead to breadth, if God deems it, but that the focus on breadth steals depth.
In summary...I don't know what you call them: ideas, priorities, values, beliefs, attitudes, practices...maybe all of the above. But I do know that these ideas help me to come alive in God...idealistic expectationsintimate relationships, transformational depth.   
With all of that, let me end by saying that all of it is grace. If the Lord wills, I will feel His presence. All the spiritual discipline and attitudes in the world, perfectly practiced by the most sincere and devoted soul, without God's grace, accomplishes nothing productive at all.
May God give His grace. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Lament for Conner...and all of us

A while back I wrote about my friend who suddenly lost his middle school son in a car wreck that the whole family was in. Below is a gut wrenching piece from him that reflects the depths of both suffering and faith available to us as men. Don't read it if you expect fluffy platitudes about life with God.

Lament For Connor


That ugly scar of fresh turned earth

Holds tight my broken son whose worth

The world will never know. And I

Turn stricken face to steely sky

And ask a question that will start

Fresh groaning from a broken heart .

Where were you, God, on that dark road

When violence took what I adored

And crushed him? Did You see her shock,

Her wailing, kissing bloody locks?

Did You stand by with folded arm

Or with Your finger cause this harm?

What did I do to make you mad?

If this is love I’ve more than had

Enough. How can I speak of You

To foes when this is what you do

To friends? I’m worn out now and just

Begun to walk the path I must.

Yet I have nowhere left to turn

For hope or joy. I cannot learn

Another voice than first I knew

And trusted. Were they true,

The promises you made to me?

Can I full trust what I can’t see?

I know that my Redeemer lives.

I know a Sovereign takes and gives.

I am a blind and broken man,

So I will hold on while I can

For now. Is grace enough to keep?

Until we see Your face, I weep.


I'm eternally grateful to my friend Tod for sharing his suffering. For those of us who know him, we know him to have a gift of insight and truth. That he continues to apply those gifts regardless of the circumstances of his life doesn't surprise me at all. He has been chosen from among us to be an exhibit of God's glory, and I mourn with him that it is in such dramatic fashion. Blessed are the people who have been chosen for lesser shows, and count it only God's grace if you are one them, created for the lesser trials and displays. Only give yourself over to the pain of others so that you can better know God's love and consolation through them, and they through you.


Jesus said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, and that it is for those who are weary and heavy laden. How easy it is to believe such a claim when all is light and airy around us, our outward circumstances providing us with ease. But finding his deeper meaning can only come with the shadow's descent, the dark clouds hovering, the very ground under feet pulled away.


Pray for my friend that, he find it. He will.



Thursday, July 05, 2007

Five Things I Dig about Jesus

I was invited by a fellow blogger (http://this-walk.blogspot.comto be the next in a growing group of people being asked to make a list of 5 things they like about Jesus.

An impossible task...only 5 things...but here is my feeble attempt and reducing the irreducible.

That he reveals to me what God is like. I have found within me an unstoppable desire to know what the Cause of all things is like. In my humanity, I am deer-in-the-headlights afraid to know, but also drowning-in-the-ocean in need of knowing. And the second motivation always wins out over the first. I would stop and listen (and have) to anyone who audaciously claimed to know what God is like, helpless to at least consider their claims. But in Jesus, I have found someone who claims not just to know what he is like, but to be what he is like. This is either sheer arrogance or honest truth. For reasons way to many to list here, I have decided on the latter. I have found in Jesus both that I need not be afraid of God, and that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. And I love that about Jesus. He reveals to me what God is like.

His uncompromising idealism. Ideals are what inspire people. People must react to ideals. There is something inherent about ideals that make people "want to believe" or "need to discredit". Jesus presents some simple ideals that transcend everything - all ideas, concepts, structures, or systems. Anything purely good about anything I have ever found or seen all stem from Christ's ideals (even if the thing it's contained in is anti-Christ). His ideals are different than any I have found, because they can be lived out regardless of the circumstances that human beings find themselves in. His ideals are matters of the heart. Ideals are the stuff of believers, and while they require the oftentimes-hard-to-find "belief" to be lived out, that belief is the sum total of what you need to discover that they are the fabric of abundant life itself. That's why Jesus said that "the work of God is this: to believe."  Jesus is the most idealistic thinker and teacher ever known, and additionally, he lives out his ideals perfectly as a human to show that "idealistic" is not the opposite of "realistic". I love him for that.

His inexhaustible depth. - I can't seem to stop learning about Christ. I can't seem to plumb the limits of his teaching, his example, or his person. And it is pure joy because going deeper into Jesus' life is not simply an academic exercise for me. I get bored quickly when increasing in mere knowledge, but I get life when increasing in knowledge that transforms my character in ways that have real and practical effect in my life and the lives of those around me at a heart level. And learning about the heart, character, priorities, and mission of Christ does just that. "The Kingdom of God is within you," Jesus says. So the idea of "Kingdom growth" is the idea of me growing inwardly. It's effect, to be sure, is seen outwardly, but make no was inward transformation that brought it about if it was real and permanent. "Abide in me," Jesus says. This is no static thing. There is no action you can take that would allow you to check this command off the list of things to do in a lifetime, moving on to the next. Abiding in Christ is the last decision you will ever sincerely make, because you will never finish. This is far from discouraging! On the contrary, I am ever-grateful! As I prepared for my first skydive, my instructor explained why he had jumped over 800 times so far in his life by saying, "I skydived, and it was the greatest thing I'd ever done. Let me ask you: If you could do the greatest thing you've ever done, AGAIN...would you? And what price would you be willing to pay?" Amen. Meeting and knowing Jesus Christ is the greatest thing I've ever done. So I love his inexhaustible depth because I get to do the greatest thing I've ever done again and again.

His unabashed, unashamed, courageous offer of intimacy. - Another one of those things I find myself helplessly needing is to "be known". I enjoy "knowing" (see my first item above), but I am also compelled to be fully known. Now, while I believe God created us this way from the very beginning, putting us in the garden with unhindered intimacy with Himself and with each other, I must admit to a combination of insecurities that drive me. I'm insecure about my motives. I want them to be pure and purified where they are not, but I know I can fool myself, so I want to be fully known so that I have accountability and witnesses, so to speak. I'm also insecure about my methods. I've been told that I have some creativity to me, but I don't want to do something because it's clever, rather because it's meaningful and effects things for good. Being fully known by others gives affirmation and input in how I go about making a difference in the world. There are other reasons, I'm sure. But whatever my reasons for wanting intimate community, Jesus Christ delivers it. And he does so in two unbelievable ways: (1) he instructs me in how to make and maintain intimate friendships among my fellow human beings. That being: share everything. Jesus said to his disciples, who started as his students and servants, "I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you."). They are his friends, he says, because he has shared everything he has learned from God. That's how I make friends, too. But he doesn't stop with mere instructions on how to have intimacy among men, but (2) also among the Godhead. This is the crown of crowns in my heart! He offers to me the very intimacy that He and God share, and the friendship that my heart longs for, and doesn't dare believe available or possible. Jesus offers intimacy with God! Jesus prays, "I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me." I am undone! He fully knows me and my ability to manipulate myself into mistakenly thinking that I have some measure of goodness, he knows the double-sided, self-serving nature of my "good ideas" to benefit and love "the world" and he loves me still. No one satisfies my desire for intimacy like Jesus. I can not speak of my undying gratitude and love for Jesus because of this.

He shows me how to live the best possible life available to a human being...and gives it to me freely. What can I say? I wish I could say that my followership of Jesus was strictly motivated by my obligation to pay him back after what he has sacrificed for me. I wish I could say that my followership of Jesus was based on faith alone that I will have Heaven - unstoppable bliss - after this hard life is over. I wish I could say that my followership of Jesus was out of my pure and unselfish desire for those around me to know Jesus, up to and including my enemies. And while I can say that all three of those things are absolute motivations within my heart, there is another reason that I follow Jesus Christ that really feels somewhat selfish and self-serving and pertains to my current life in this present age and has little to do with his unmatchable sacrifice for my sins. And that is this: I can find no better way to live. There is not a life that is more satisfying, joy-full, or peace-producing available to me than the life of becoming more and more like him. There is nothing that feels safer or more dangerous...and I need a full measure of both for abundant life. If I want a life of passion, purpose, love, and abundance...I have no other alternative than the life of the Kingdom. The life of the cross. The life of Christ.

Show much to say, no words to adequately say it. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, God. Thank you.