Tag Archives: Denomination

Trials, Gold, and Dross

So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the Lord, the God of Israel.
Ezra 6:21 (NIV)

On Sunday, after I gave the message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, Wendy and I were having our normal lunch date together. Wendy had given the message the previous Sunday. She shared the story of her journey through infertility. This past Sunday I spoke about secrets and my own experience with secrets that kept me spiritually imprisoned.

There was a common theme in our messages. We both slogged our way through long stretches of trial and difficulty, and we both experienced previously unknown depths of joy and freedom at the other end of our respective valleys.

As we dined and debriefed, we discussed a few of the things that some religious people cling to as if of vital importance. Things such as church membership and adherence to a particular denominational institution. For the two of us, such trappings hold very little importance. To a certain extent, I realized that our journeys and struggles through hard spiritual terrain had refined our perspectives on what it means to be followers of Jesus. Membership certificates and institutional inclusion are of very little importance to us compared to the more tangible daily realities of our own personal, daily spiritual trek among our community of Jesus’ followers.

In today’s chapter, the returned exiles complete their construction of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. There is a very small distinction in today’s chapter that is easily lost on a casual reader. The returned exiles are referred to as “Israelites.” When Jerusalem was besieged and the exile began, they were the nation of Judah. For hundreds of years prior to the exile, the tribes of Israel were separated in a bloody civil war. “Israel” was the northern kingdom. “Judah” was the southern kingdom. Now, upon return from their exile and the restoration of the Temple, they were simply “Israelites” along with Gentiles, like Ruth, who had chosen to follow their faith.

I couldn’t help but think that the experience of exile over 70 years changed some things for those who went through it. Old conflicts and prejudices fell by the wayside. Those who returned had a renewed understanding of what was truly important and what things simply didn’t matter all that much in the eternal perspective. That’s what exilic experiences and the spiritual struggle through valleys of pain, grief, and trouble will do for a person. It refines things. I’m reminded of Peter’s words to fellow believers scattered across the Roman Empire experiencing dreadful persecution:

May the thought of this cause you to jump for joy, even though lately you’ve had to put up with the grief of many trials. But these only reveal the sterling core of your faith, which is far more valuable than gold that perishes, for even gold is refined by fire. Your authentic faith will result in even more praise, glory, and honor when Jesus the Anointed One is revealed.
1 Peter 1:6-7 (TPT)

In the process of refining metal, which Peter uses as a metaphor, the gold remains while the “dross” (literally “scum on molten metal”) is removed as useless and worthless.

In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering those things that my trials have refined and revealed to be the gold of eternal importance and those things that my trials have revealed to be worthless scum in the grand scheme of things.

Rediscovering the Organism

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
1 Corinthians 12:27 (NIV)

I remember getting the call. There was an emergency meeting of the church elders. I was a young man and had been serving as pastor of a rural church for over a year. As I made my way to the church office for the hastily called meeting I wondered what on earth the problem was.

As it turned out, the problem was me. Apparently, I had not officially gone through the prescribed bureaucratic hoops required to become a member of the church when I was hired. One of the elders had their undies in a bunch because I’d never become a member. I sort of figured that if the congregation hired me, I was kind of automatically grandfathered in. Oh, no. How could I be serving as Pastor of the organization if I wasn’t a member of said organization? We have an existential crisis on our hands, people!!

I did my best not to laugh. At the next congregational meeting I submitted my name for membership, the congregation approved, and that little bit of silliness was put to rest.

The sad thing is that I’ve encountered similar kinds of silliness in the institutional church wherever my journey has taken me. Looking back over my journey, I’m struck at how different the institutional paradigm of “church” that I grew up with compares to the word picture of “the body of Christ” that Paul gives to the believers in Corinth in today’s chapter.

The word picture of the “Body” is a living organism made up of all believers. The church I grew up in was an organization made up of just those who chose to go through membership class, go through interviews with the elders, and accepted the “right hand of fellowship” along with a nice certificate (perfect for framing) during a Sunday morning meeting. In Paul’s word picture, every believer has a spiritual gift and has a significant part to play in contributing to the work of the Body of Christ as a whole. The church I grew up in had a few appointed “ministers” approved by the organization to do ministry. The vast majority of us were little more than spectators and financial support. Paul’s word picture of the Body is inclusive and includes all believers regardless of age, gender, social status, or ethnic background. The church I grew up in was exclusive to those who had a certificate of membership, which is why the elder in my earlier story was horrified by the notion that I was serving as their pastor but hadn’t jumped through the bureaucratic hoops of the organization to get mine.

To be sure, even in Paul’s day the church was struggling to provide some kind of organizational framework for a movement that had gone from just over 100 people to tens of thousands of people in just a few years. Nevertheless, when the organism of the Body of Christ that Paul describes in today’s chapter became an organization and then a political, social, and religious institution of the Roman Empire a couple of hundred years later, I believe something was lost.

I’ve observed along my life journey that the church institutions of my childhood are dying. The old mainline denominations have fractured and faded. People are increasingly embittered by the systemic sins of a global religious institution and its leaders who refuse to deal honestly and forthrightly with the issues. When I grew up, a politician was required to be a member of an acceptable religious organization or institution in order to be considered a good candidate. I find it fascinating that a leading politician recently stated that membership in a legacy religious organization is a sign of prejudice and hate speech, disqualifying a person from serving in a government position.

Oh my. The times, they are a changin’.

And, in the quiet this morning I’m thinking that maybe it’s a good thing. History leads me to believe that the Jesus movement is always more effective when it is persecuted and less effective when it is in power. Perhaps we’ll learn how to become an organism once again. You’re welcome to join me. I won’t even ask you to show me a certificate of membership.

Organism and Organization

“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul….”
Acts 13:2 (NIV)

For anyone who is interested in how organizations and human systems grow and function, the book of Acts provides some fascinating insights. The Jewish tribe from which the Jesus movement sprung was a rigidly structured religious system based on  tribes, families, and descent (thus all the endless lists of genealogies). Only descendants of Aaron could be priests and offer sacrifices. Only members of the Levite clan could work in the Temple. If you were a woman or you weren’t genetically connected to the Jewish tribe, then you were always held a lower class position. This was the centuries old system that the first believers were raised in. It’s all they knew.

Within weeks of Jesus’ ascension the “new” system turned everything these believers had once known on its head. Thousands upon thousands of people became believers. And it wasn’t just people from the Jewish tribe, but people from every walk of life. Holy Spirit power poured out on everybody regardless of gender, tribe, class, age, nationality, socio-economic position, or education. Not only was the movement organically growing exponentially, but everyone had a role to play. Everyone had a spiritual gift with which to contribute to the good of the whole. Read between the lines of Acts and you can feel the heady mess that Jesus’ followers had on their hands.

In today’s chapter there’s a little hint of this reality. Barnabas had been among the first believers, but certainly wasn’t one of Jesus’ original twelve. We find Barnabas in the town of Antioch where he seems to have some position of leadership along with guys named Simeon (Wait a minute. Who!?) and Lucius (What?!) and a dude named Manaen (Who is that?!) whose claim to local fame was having been the foster brother of Herod Antipas when he was a kid. Notice that Saul (Yes, that Saul, the one we know as the Apostle Paul) is named last on the list.

Welcome to the Jesus movement, the early church, where groups of believers sprung up everywhere out of nowhere and people you never heard of are suddenly leading local groups of Jesus’ followers.

This group in Antioch is worshipping and a person with the gift of prophecy gives Holy Spirit direction that Barnabas and Saul need to go on a journey to take the good news about Jesus to other towns. Notice that this sending didn’t come from the central authority, The Twelve, in Jerusalem. There was no committee formed, no delegation sent from Antioch to petition approval from the leadership in Jerusalem. Holy Spirit spoke direct to some dudes we’ve never heard of telling Barnabas and Saul to go. The dudes we’ve never heard of laid hands on Barnabas and Saul because they had the authority of Holy Spirit. It is an organic, living, breathing, growing, multiplying system.

And, it was messy.

It fascinates me to look at this organism of the early Jesus movement and then look at the denominations that make up most of the Christian churches in the world. When I look at denominations from Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, and Assemblies of God with their hierarchical org charts, their strict rules about who can do what, their educational systems, and their religious hoops it reminds me more of the old Jewish system from which Jesus freed the early believers.

In the book of Acts we witness the early church struggling to create systems to keep up with all that Holy Spirit was doing. An organization evolved and structures were clearly put into place. We as humans need structure and organization in order for things to work well. At the same time, what differentiated the early Jesus movement was that Holy Spirit was given free reign to work in and through everyone just as God designed the body of Christ to work. Along my journey I’ve observed that we always seem to put Holy Spirit back into the well ordered boxes of our human systems and organizational structures. When the Body of Christ is no longer allowed to be the organism it was designed to me and it is forced into rigid human organizational structures, it’s like putting a leash on Holy Spirit. Explosive, dunamis (the Greek word from which we get “dynamite”) power Jesus unleashed at Pentecost is reduced to a safe, child-proof sparkler.

There is a need for structure and organization, but I believe that we need to unleash Holy Spirit and rediscover the organic, living, breathing, growing, multiplying organism the Body of Christ was created to be.

A Tyrant, My Faith, and Possibility

“I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations.”
Jeremiah 25:9 (NIV)

On my spiritual journey I’ve had the opportunity to worship with, and serve among, a wide variety of denominational groups. Methodist, Regular Baptist, American Baptist, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Reformed denominations to name the major ones, though the list expands to everything from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal when you consider a vast number of smaller experiences and events. I’ve observed along the way that most institutions dedicated to the notion of following Jesus, along with their respective followers, are reductionist in their faith.

Take the little town where I live, for example. The town was settled by one group of Jesus followers who were led to America from the Netherlands by their pastor. Not long after settling the group split. With time, the two groups split again. Most often, divisions were predicated on some minor disagreement in doctrinal belief. Eventually, some groups aligned with one denominational institution while others joined another. Rinse and repeat. Eventually there are over twenty different shades of the same belief system; Small groups of seemingly homogeneous people who have boxed themselves in their respective neighborhood church entrenched in their firm belief that the way they dot the “i” on their doctrinal statement or the music they sing on Sunday is the correct way.

The problem with this systemic pattern, I’ve come to believe, is that eventually my understanding of God’s designs and purposes get reduced right along side my insistence that my particular corner of truth is the correct way. It’s so easy to get lulled into believing and accepting that God’s official stamp of approval is really only good in my particular box. God can’t possibly bless or be at work in the box across the street where they dot their doctrinal “i” with little happy faces. [cue: rolling of the eyes] (“Goodness, where’s their sense of holiness and propriety?”)

As I journey through God’s Message time and time again I’m always struck at how expansive God’s purposes and designs really are. In today’s chapter, God calls the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar “my servant” and when I read the book of Daniel I find God going to great lengths to reveal Himself to the pagan monarch from “outside” God’s people, to humble Nebuchadnezzar, and to draw the Persian king in. In other words, God is working outside the box and outside the defined lines of “God’s people.” God uses and cares about an evil, arrogant, murderous tyrant who is so deceived as to believe himself a god. God expresses a genuine desire for Nebuchadnezzar to know Him.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about all of the different shades of denominational institutions I’ve experienced and the ways in which I saw God at work in and through each and every one of them. I’m also thinking about specific individuals with whom I shared each of those stretches of my faith journey; Individuals who isolated themselves within their denominational box to the point of believing that God could not, would not possibly bless those outside their particular box.

Lord, have mercy on us.

The further I get in my own journey the less reductionist, and more expansive my faith has become. I realize that the eyes of my heart are in the process of increasingly seeing that the divine dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reaches further, has far greater design, and pulls in far more people from every walk of life than I can possibly know or imagine.

Who can possibly be saved?” Jesus’ disciples asked Him.

With man, it is impossible,” Jesus replied, and then He continued: “But, with God all things are possible.”

I don’t want my faith shrinking into the belief that it’s impossible that God would dance in the lives of others simply because they are different from me, hold to different traditions, have radically different views on religion/doctrine/life/economics/politics, or live a very different life style than mine. I want my own faith dancing and growing into the possibilities that God is dancing with the Nebuchadnezzars of my day (and in my life) as His Great Story continues to be revealed day-by-day, moment-by-moment.

“Yes, And”

I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.

And the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the Lord.
Zechariah 11:12-13 (NIV)

Reading scholarly commentary on today’s chapter, one is confronted with two contrasting interpretations of Zechariah’s prophecy. One sees the text as a conclusion of the previous chapter and a judgement on the neighboring nations who pose an obstacle to the reestablishment of Jerusalem. Others see it as prescient judgement on the rejection of God’s Messiah Shepherd.

What struck me as I read the presentation of contrasting interpretations is that I felt as though I must make up my mind as to which one is right; Which I agreed with and which I would reject. I have been programmed by my culture and tradition to approach interpretation in a dualistic, either-or manner. When I was younger my teachers regularly presented various arguments on different interpretations of a text then argued passionately for the interpretation that the teacher was convinced was the right one. Over time I felt the subtle but pervasive expectation to align myself to groups with whom I agreed on all the right interpretations.

I felt the expectation in the arena of institutional Christianity in which I was to align loyally with the particular denomination with whom I was convinced was right (and of course all other denominations were wrong and not to be trusted). Once aligned with a denomination I found myself pressured to associate with sub-groups of thought within the denomination on hot-button issues of doctrine or scriptural interpretation; Camps who would separate at denominational meetings like the parting of the Red Sea.

This was also true of politics, especially true here in the States where everything is divided into primarily two camps at ever and increasingly estranged viewpoints moving further and further apart.

This is also true socially where one social group separates themselves from another social groups and holds the other at an arm’s length of ignorant suspicion: Blacks and whites, academics and business, science and religion, jocks and artists, preppies and burn-outs, nerds and popular kids.

Along this life journey I have found myself consistently moving toward the gray spaces between the separate camps of dualistic thought, which sometimes raises suspicions of both. I have served and worshipped among many different denominations. I have found myself socializing in starkly contrasting social groups. I find myself increasingly rejecting the polarizing extremes of both of my country’s red and blue camps.

This morning I find myself mulling over the dualistic interpretations of Zechariah’s prophecy and whispering to myself, “yes, and.” So it is with the prophetic which can be layered with meaning and revealed by a God who is consistently beyond confinement of human thought or understanding. Even Jesus, whom I believe was the incarnate Immanuel (“God with us”) was consistently found at the tension between dualistic extremes. So much so, in fact, that those of Jesus’ own religion considered Him so threatening to their entrenched, right religious interpretations that they were willing to pay to get rid of Him.

And so they paid one of Jesus’ own followers thirty pieces of silver. When Judas felt the shamed of what he had done to Jesus he threw the silver back at the priests who used the money to buy a Potter’s field to be used to bury poor dead blokes who couldn’t afford a grave.

That’s one prophecy that scholars in either interpretive camp of today’s chapter can agree is eerily present in the text that Zac wrote nearly 500 years before the events occurred.

 

My Butt Ain’t That Big

God’s Message to his anointed,
    to Cyrus, whom he took by the hand…
…I’ve singled you out, called you by name,
    and given you this privileged work.
    And you don’t even know me!
Isaiah 45:1,4 (MSG)

Yesterday, over coffee with a friend, I was sharing my experiences of attending a fundamentalist Bible college one semester. My friend asked me where the college was and I told him where it was located.

He looked at me in surprise.

I never knew there was a Bible college there!” he exclaimed.

Shhhhh!” I whispered, lifting my finger to my mouth. “They don’t want you to know they’re there!

I was jesting, of course, but the truth of the matter is that throughout most of my life journey I’ve found many followers of Jesus, and especially many of the denominational institutions, are an exclusionary bunch. Membership requires strict adherence to a rigid set of doctrinal beliefs and/or public adherence to a list (sometimes formal, sometimes not) of moral and puritanical behavioral rules. If you don’t tow the line, you’re not welcome. Many will go so far as to say that if you don’t tow the line then you’re not only not welcome in their church but you’re also not going to be welcome in heaven either.

The further I get in my spiritual journey, and the deeper I get in my relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the more I’ve come to see this exclusionary religious model, adhered to by so many proclaimed Christian institutions and denominations, as antithetical to God’s actual Message and example.

In today’s chapter the prophet Isaiah gives a message about Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid empire in the middle part of the sixth century B.C.. Cyrus was not Jewish. He didn’t claim to believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. In fact, Cyrus had a reputation of a “live and let live” policy for allowing the nations he conquered continue to pursue their local religions. It was quite progressive in his day. Cyrus was not one of “God’s chosen” people, and yet God through the prophet Isaiah calls Cyrus his “anointed” whom He has “taken by the hand.” God has “singled Cyrus out” and “called him by name” even though Cyrus has no knowledge of this.

This morning I am reminded that the Creator, and Almighty God, does not live inside the box of my personal doctrinal and religious parameters. I am responsible to follow the path to which I am called, to follow Jesus’ teachings and example, to live out the comprehensive law of Love, to let God be God, and leave judgment to the Judge who is infinitely beyond all that my finite mind can think or imagine.

The Judgment Seat of Christ is a huge chair.

My butt isn’t nearly big enough to fit on it.

 

Priests, Protestants and Me

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take Aaron and his sons with him, the vestments, the anointing oil, the bull of sin offering, the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread; and assemble the whole congregation at the entrance of the tent of meeting.
Leviticus 8:1-3 (NRSV)

Aaron was Moses’ right-hand man, and it was Aaron and his sons who were chosen to be the priests in the sacrificial system of the ancient Hebrews. In today’s chapter, God through Moses takes Aaron and his sons through a ritual of ordination to become priests. It is a long ritual filled with metaphor from their priestly vestments to a little dab ‘ill do ya of blood on the ear lobe.

A priest is a mediator between God and man. A priest stands in the spiritual gap. The priest represents God to humanity and represents humanity before God. A priest is spiritually elevated and ordained to handle and serve the sacrifice, to carry our prayers into the presence of the Almighty, and to bestow forgiveness and absolution to the common sinner.

Among Christian institutions, the priesthood is one of the major differences between Roman Catholicism (and Greek Orthodox and Anglican) and the Protestant denominations. Protestants believe that since Jesus death and resurrection there is only one priest and mediator, and it is Jesus:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. Hebrews 4:14

“For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all….” 1 Timothy 2:5

Three of the four gospel writers report that when Jesus died the curtain in the Hebrew temple was torn in two. That curtain separated people from the area of the temple where God resided. Only the priest could enter. When the curtain was torn, the way was made for anyone to enter into God’s presence. Jesus was the sacrifice, the mediator, and the priest who stands in the gap.

In my Protestant circles, we think very little of the role of a priest anymore. I have, however, observed along my journey that Protestants often like to unwittingly bestow priestly powers on our pastors and spiritual leaders. It seems there is something innately human about doing so despite what we say we believe.

This morning I’m mulling over my own understanding of the role of priests, the work of Jesus and what that means. The ultimate sacrifice has been made. The curtain is torn. The way is open for me to enter into God’s presence. I need no other emissary, or representative, or priest. I need only approach.

Will I?

 

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