Thursday, December 29, 2005

But Is It A Tree -- Part Two

Continuing from last post....

When we place the bits and pieces of a tree in one place, we don't have a tree; we just have bits. They may be interesting, but they are not alive. My fear is that we might have done just this with our faith and worship. We might have scrubbed it clean, dissected it, and brought it into one place, but is it alive? Is it worship?

We sometimes hear that we should "just read the Bible and do what it says." This is problematical on several levels. What if Joseph, when troubled at finding his brothed pregnant and possessed of a non-standard explanation for said pregnancy, got the advice from others to "just read the Bible and do what it says"? He would have had to take Mary out into a public place and stone her. (for more, see the sermon Josh Graves and I gave last Sunday. It is at Instead, he listened to God via the angel and Mary was spared, Jesus was born, and you know the rest of the story.

Don't respond by saying "The Jews had lost the right to capital punishment by this time. It was against Roman law for Joseph to kill Mary..." The rejoinder would be that we have always taught that God's law supercedes all laws of man so Joseph is not off the hook!

But I'm glad that he didn't just gather the rules in one place and declare it God. Instead, he was still willing to hear what God wanted done in his life, in his situation. I am comforted by this, but also troubled: in what other situations may we go with the spirit instead of with the truth? (I am using these terms loosely, as has been our tradition)

Or how about this one? I grew up with the teaching that not only was standard among us -- it was one of the reasons we existed! It was that we were never allowed to tweak or modify anything, anytime, anywhere and the flannelgraph figures employed in the teaching were those of Nadab and Abihu. They just switched types of fire -- we were told -- and God killed them. So don't be adding... (fill in the blank here). This was in the Jule Miller filmstrips, VBS literature, and sermons. It was foundational.

But... what about the synagogue? When the Jews couldn't get to to the temple (sometimes for the very good reason that it was gone, kaput, kicked over by the invader du jour) they developed -- without any authority that we can find and certainly none in Scripture -- a whole different way to worship. It set aside pretty much all of Leviticus as priests and sacrifices weren't part of it. People gathered in an egalitarian sort of way and the Bible was read, songs were sung and, when Jesus came, he joined in! Never, ever, can we find God getting upset at this. Makes you think Nadab and Abihu's problem was deeper than getting their fire from Wal-mart rather than Sears.

Maybe it was a heart problem? Maybe their spirits were dead? I've heard some speculate that the boys were involved in some pagan practices. Maybe, but so were a lot of people in the Bible whom God did not kill with fireworks. What was the difference?

It seems to me that the answer to all of this is in our "spirit and truth" discussion. Keith had a very good point in his comments to my last post in that we tend to read the Scripture as law rather than story. He is correct, of course. Is this why we don't have a Book of Worship that lays out which songs are acceptable, when or if raising hands or clapping is all right, etc?

Let's keep this going. Kindness all around, please. Extra points for humility. If I don't comment as quickly as you'd like it is because I am recovering from some tummy troubles. I either had a bug or I ate some Democrat food. Why 'Democrat'? Because it had no problem going in but immediately insisted on finding an exit strategy. I'll say no more than that....

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

But Is It A Tree?

C.S. Lewis pointed out that one of the distinguishing marks of the Christian faith was the existence and work of the Holy Spirit. No other religion, he said, has anything approximating the Spirit and His work. A lot of ink and blood has been spilled over exactly how the Spirit works and moves. I will quickly confess to any and all that I don't know the answers. However, several incidents in my life have given me insights you might find interesting.

I had worshipped one morning with a small group of believers in a town in the west of Scotland. They did everything the way we do things -- the five acts of worship, etc. They had even imported American songbooks and sang our traditional hymns. The worship seemed formulaic and there wasn't much in the way of spirit there. No worries, though. I knew that God could do things I didn't know about so perhaps that worship helped some there to get through their week.

That night we were invited to attend a worship service held over a barn in its loft. The people there, we were told, had left denominations and were looking for pure, simple Christianity. I took a member with me and we climbed the steps to the loft where we were warmly greeted. They used an acoustic guitar while they sang. Several danced during the songs. The Lords Supper was offered with wine in the cup and a huge dinner roll as the bread. Tears flowed down their cheeks as they took in Christ's sacrifice.

I left that night very troubled. Raised in a very conservative branch of the church I was still its loyal son, but I could sense a seismic shift occuring as I wondered: We have been told to worship in spirit and in truth. We worshipped in truth this morning, but there was no evidence of the Spirit. They worshipped in the Spirit this evening, but they didn't hold to the old paths and the ways I considered the truth. So... would God condemn them for not having the truth but spare us when we didn't have the spirit?

Somewhat like the scrubbed nativity scenes I discussed last post, I think we have done the same with our worship. We have scrubbed them, made them clean, orderly, clinical and sterile (in every sense as they do not seem to produce baby Christians very often). Perhaps it is because we tried to discover -- in a scientific fashion -- the basic facts and then put them on display in a clear, minimalist way, just as we do the nativity scene. When we do so, do we have worship as God intended?

The mighty redwood tree is made up of less than thirty types of element/compound/ or substance. If I were to isolate those compounds through diligent study, place each in a jar, and then arrange those 28 different jars in front of someone and declare: "Behold! The mighty redwood!" you would fit me for the funny jacket and fling medications at me. I have the elements of a tree... but is it a tree? When we do the same to our faith and worship and bring those elements in front of the crowd and declare "Behold! Worship pleasing to God!" is it really? Just asking.

Without diligent study, though, we can go "all spirit all the time" and end up, not with God's Spirit, but with our own. We are warned to test every spirit to see whether it is from God. While we invite the Spirit into our worship and life (and ask Him to bring life to us, to fill us so that we seem drunk to the world), we must make sure that what we are being led to do agrees with the story of Scripture. God may lead us in many directions, but the devil is also poised to lead us while wearing a poorly designed "God suit." We search the scriptures to make sure that we are hearing the same voice the apostles heard. And then we ask the Spirit to come and revitalize us, take over our sterile and lifeless forms, to kick over the tables where we've kept the jars, and bring us the power and joy of the Lord.

It takes more than the elements. It takes the Giver of Life. Without Him... is it really a tree?

Friday, December 23, 2005

The First One... Wasn't....

The first Christmas wasn't one. No, this isn't a rant against materialism or the recycling of pagan holidays. This is a collection of some of my reflections this day as we prepare for Christmas Eve and then the big day itself.

1. We never hear about Mary's parents. Did they disown her when she was found "with child" and before her official marriage to Joseph?

2. Was it rumors and inuendo that drove Mary to visit her cousin, Elizabeth? I would imagine that rumors were thick in the air and that they never fully died down. Later writers would atrribute the conception to a Roman soldier. Was Mary ever able to show her face in "respectable" society without being the recipient of smirks and dirty jokes?

3. Being the mother of Jesus probably ruined her life in many ways. Not only did her reputation die in some circles (and we have no idea what happened to that old guy she married. He probably died... but did he just leave?), she had to raise the Son of God -- no easy task -- and then witness the horrible cruelties inflicted on him.

4. Barns stink. Mangers are unsanitary. The first nativity scene wasn't a nativity scene, if you know what I mean. It would have smelt of manure, urine, blood, and straw. The air would have been full of dust and chaff. Without saying more -- have you ever witnessed a birth? There were no backlights or or halos here, no swirling angels singing with harps. The barn held pain, darkness, and confusion.

5. When we scrub the manger scene down with Lysol, place floodlights on the participants, make them white, comb their hair, and surround them with stars and adoring shepherds and animals we make Christianity a Nordic myth and rob it of its true power: for in all that dirt, pain, blood and dust was the Son of God, Emmanuel, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And that means that our messy lives can still host that same King.

6. Two people have given me Norman Rockwell themed gifts already this year. I asked my wife last night: do we give people the impression this is what our life looks like? Truth be told, it is far closer to the manger scene than anything Rockwell ever painted. But the Messiah is here, so all is well.

7. I love the lights, the trees, the crowded stores. I love the snow (although I am tired of it shortly into the New Year). I love the cards and family letters from people we've known through the years. I LOVE giving presents but am always awkward at receiving them. I love the ornaments. ...but...I always remember that the first Christmas didn't look like this. It looked more like life does. That gives me comfort beyond words.

Oh... and that "recycled pagan holiday" thing so many harp on? Sure -- there used to be some pagan holidays that have some aspects in common with our celebration. But it doesn't belong to the pagans anymore. It's ours. We took it for Jesus and we're not giving it back. We did the same thing to tombstones, wearing white at weddings, wedding rings, the names of the days of the week and a hundred other things. They used to be pagan but they are ours now. Because what happened at that first Christmas changed everything. Forever.

Tidings of comfort and joy, indeed.

Monday, December 19, 2005

A Child Is Born

"Oir rugadh dhuinne-cloinne, thugadh dhuinne mac; agus bithidh an uachdaranachd air a ghualainn; agus goirear mar ainm dheth, Iongantach, Comhairliche, and Dia cumhachdach, an t-Athair siorruidh, Prionnsa na sithe!"

For those of you who don't read Gaelic, the above is Isaiah 9:6 -- "For unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder: and his name will be Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."

I didn't fully appreciate those words until the day -- over sixteen years ago now -- when Duncan arrived in our world. After the difficult birth was over and I heard the nurse say, "You have a son", Kami was taken away to rest and I walked down to the hospital chapel to pray. Once in, I could only look at the cross on the wall and say, choking back tears, "Thank you," again and again and again. I couldn't believe that God would love us so much to give us another child, a son. We thought our line would die out with me. I was the first son of the first son going back for hundreds of years, but that seemed to be over. We weren't sure Kami could bring another child into the world so we contented ourselves with our wonderful daughter.

And then a surprise. God gave us a son.

A couple of weeks later I sat in the worship services holding my boy. There has never been a man more proud and content than I was at that moment... until I heard the bread break during Communion. It became real to me in that split second. It overwhelmed me that "oir is ann mar sin a ghradhaich Dia an saoghal..." That God so loved the world that He gave his son. He gave his son.

I hugged Duncan more tightly and said, through tears, "not my son." I couldn't imagine giving up anything this precious to anyone but especially to a people who would reject and kill him.

To this day, when I see the flurries, the tinsel, the trees and lights, and hear the carols I think back to what a gift was given us. We have His Son. He gave us His Son. Whether I find myself walking around Great Lakes Crossing mall, driving to the office, or standing on a windswept moor on the Isle of Skye watching the Atlantic waves crash against the rocks I make sure that -- every day -- I remember what God did for us.

He gave us His Son. Joy to the World.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


It is a very expensive time of year for us. My wife's birthday was last Saturday. Mine is Friday. We're not sure when Jesus' is but we've decided to celebrate on the 25th anyway (and we're keeping the church open!). We don't do candles on the cakes anymore due to local open burning regulations, but birthdays are still fun.

I bought my wife a mink coat kit for her birthday. Well, that's what I call it: a roll of Velcro, a hundred hamsters and a hammer. She said it was an upgrade from her mother's day present which was a wonderful entertainment center (well... it was two birdhouses and a BB gun). I'm not that into getting presents for my birthday because I have so much stuff already and if I want more I am usually able to buy it. And if my wife and kids buy it for me they usually use my checkbook to do it so... take it easy, kids!

Reaching 49 is not that big a deal. All you have to do is keep eating and breathing. I think it is the mommas who gave birth to us who deserve the cake, prezzies, and day off.

Last Sunday I went to an open house for Doris Jackson, one of our dear sisters at Rochester. She was celebrating her 90th birthday. As I came in she stood up to greet Kami and me -- and that is humbling in and of itself -- and grabbed me, kissing me on the cheek saying "I prayed all my life that God wouldn't let me live to be ninety. Now I just pray for patience!" What a delightful person.

My family tends to live long but not well. That is some concern for me so I am taking preventative measures such as eating bad food and moving only when absolutely necessary. (I DID run a mile once. Worse three hours of my life...) I have enough money to live the rest of my life as long as I die next Sunday. All in all, I'm living like I'm just renting my body and my stuff. "I am a weary and a lonesome traveler..."

So happy birthday to Kami and Doris and me and Jesus, too. We made it another year. I'm told that Jews, when celebrating the Passover, say "Next year in Jerusalem!" I think I'm going to start saying, on my birthday, "Next year in heaven!" Now THAT would be a cool present.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Big Living Room

Last Friday night 260+ of us from the Rochester Church went to see The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe together. Two of the ladies of the church had the idea to approach a theater, arrange for purchasing tickets, and even set up a dessert reception after the movie at the church building where the kids made crowns and shields and the parents ate and visited.

It was a strange feeling to stand near the back of a movie auditorium and see it filled with people I knew. We didn't take every seat so the theater sold the rest of them to people outside our congregation. It was fascinating to watch them come in and freeze, literally stopping dead in their tracks at the tableau before them: people going from place to place all over the auditorium hugging each other, laughing and smiling. They could tell that something very strange was going on but they had no way to absorb it, contextualize it. This was a room full of people who loved each other, who were genuinely happy to see each other, and who hurried to show grace and welcome to each other. Who were these people?

While they wrestled with that, I wrestled with something else. I couldn't make myself sit down until they dimmed the lights for the obligatory twenty minutes of previews. I was near the back and I didn't go from person to person and join in the greeting. I was too busy watching it all... in awe at this preview of heaven. "Is this what it's going to be like?" I wondered. Will it feel like this -- like a huge living room filled with your favorite people -- people who love you and like you and want to be with you?

We don't talk much about heaven and, perhaps, even less about hell. Why? Perhaps we have swung far, far away from the other extreme where we talked about God making it all right "bye and bye" and did nothing to stop racism, poverty, domestic violence, etc. We counseled battered women to hang in there because God would make it up to them in heaven (I am not making this up -- I heard it many times). It seems that we finally realized that Christ wanted us to live righteous lives NOW so we got about to what CS Lewis would have called "the business of heaven."

Have we gone so far in the other direction that we no longer long for heaven? Is it a lack of teaching? Is it that we have so much stuff that we are comfortable HERE and no longer looking for a THERE?

I don't know. But I DO know this: after seeing that group of happy, loving people last Friday, I can't wait to run into heaven's living room and spending eternity with them. Come Lord Jesus.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

What's Your Target?

In the current controversy over the shooting of a man at Miami International Airport, it might be good to review the rules for handling firearms and shooting... and then make the obligatory spiritual application.

1. Consider all firearms to be loaded all the time.
2. Never point your firearm at anything you are not willing to destroy.
3. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.
4. Acquire and identify your target.
5. Know what is around and behind your target.

I was actually thinking of these rules this week and working on something when breaking news hit about the sky marshal(s) shooting a man who claimed he had a bomb. My thinking wasn't about shooting something or someone. I was wondering about my target. Had I acquired the right target? Without going into mind-numbing detail on some of my shooting exercises in the past, let me merely say that I, during a practice house clearing exercise at a competition, once turned around and declared a room clear only to have the instructor point out the cardboard bad guy pointing a gun at me from the window. Had it been real, it could have ruined my whole day!

Raised in a hyper-conservative church, my early targets were liberal churches of Christ. I blasted, debated, and chewed my way through hundreds of sermons and letters about them. In my late 20's I went through a five to eight year change of heart and mind about matters religious. C.S. Lewis helped me a great deal with Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, both of which I read during a particularly painful time of my life.

So I changed my target. I have spent a lot of the last ten years or so preaching freedom in Christ and challenging those who have distilled the gospel into yet another legal system with a church sign out front. Most of my work has been to prove that people were free in Christ and free from tradition.

But I think I need to pick a new target. When I look out at my congregation on Sunday, none of our three services has a majority of people who came from any branch of the restoration movement. In one service the number is probably less than 30%. They don't need me preaching sermons that attack the legalists or traditionalists among us. They don't know those people and have no idea what I'm talking about. They need me to preach about how to live as Christ in a postmodern, and moderately post-Christian, world.

I have spent most of efforts, most of my life, in struggles with my brethren on the left and then on the right when they are not my enemy. My enemy is this aggressively secularist society and its hatred for the absolutes of faith. My enemy is a culture that doesn't mind if you go to church as long as it doesn't affect anything you say or do at school, in business, or about their entertainments.

It's time we began targeting the real threat to Christ's people, and it isn't the church. It's time we redirected our fire outside the foxhole, toward the enemy. The real enemy.

For we have met the enemy. And, this time, it isn't us.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Choose Your Lunch

There is a strange British expression to indicate that you have really, really messed something up. You are said to have "made a dog's lunch" of it. It's gross, but it means that your efforts ended up like what a dog throws up. Yech, right?

There's another kind of lunch, though. Remember the little boy whose lunch Jesus turned into food for thousands of people? I love that story. There is no indication that that little boy gave up his food willingly. I imagine the apostles bringing him all wadded up in the fetal position attempting to protect the lunch that his mommy had made for him. Out of the thousands of people listening to Jesus that day only one had a mommy who thought ahead to lunchtime. When the apostles decided that the people needed to be sent away to find food, Jesus told them to find food for them. I am sure that the apostles were bringing the little boy to Jesus to show him there wasn't enough food. Jesus found a way to extricate the few fish and bits of bread from the boy and made enough to feed everyone.

And the leftovers? I think Jesus would have sent those home with the boy.

When I look at the few talents I possess and what God has done with them, I thank God he has let me be like that boy's lunch. When the elders hired me at Rochester I told them that if they wanted to write down my skills and positive traits they wouldn't need much paper. I wasn't lying. Yet, I raised a lovely daughter and am still raising a wonderful son. I have a wife who still makes my heart flutter after 26 years of marriage. I have a church of 1000+ people who love Jesus and take good care of me.

How'd this happen? Look at my family and my history and you would think my life would be a real dog's lunch. But Jesus gave me the same treament he gave that little boy's lunch. None of it was due to me. It was him. Love and grace is on offer, it seems, to those who take Jesus up on his offer.

Dog's lunch or boy's lunch. You decide.