Friday, December 8, 2017

The Difference Between "Manger" and "Manager"

Just recently a few interesting this happened:

1) My wife and I were visiting family and friends in Southern Central Kentucky and Northern Central Tennessee over Thanksgiving, and we decided the Sunday after Thanksgiving to worship with a small Free Methodist Church that we had come across on a previous trip. We had wondered about that congregation then, and we figured this trip would be a good opportunity to find out a little bit more about them.

So we found out when their Sunday School and worship service times were, and we showed up. For Sunday School there were maybe ten, and for the worship service a couple more showed up, and we found out that was fairly typical for this church. And what we saw amazed us.

I was appreciative of how deeply the Bible was embedded in them. The Sunday School lesson dealt with a study on the end times, and yet not a single person brought up points made by Dispensationalists. In fact, quite the opposite. They were looking at what scripture said and figured out that while some bad end times theology leads us to just sit back and wait (or sometimes try to determine) for the Lord's return. That, however, is not what impressed me most about this congregation.

This is a church that runs 12-20 people any given Sunday. It used to be bigger, but something happened. Anyway, there were two offerings taken, and it appeared to me that this congregation was prepared for that. One was the regular offering that helps with the budget, and my wife inquired as to what the second offering was for. She was told it was for a fellowship hall.

They had a lunch at the church that day, and we ate in what was serving as their fellowship hall. Mind you, there were probably no more than 14 or 15 people, and though small, the area seemed to suffice for them for their fellowship time. Yet, they were collecting money for a new fellowship hall, and the pastor had mentioned the fund set aside for that had recently received an additional $1000.

Here was a congregation that, by all available metrics, is struggling, and yet they were setting aside funds for a fellowship hall. The only sense that I can make of it is that they see a vision that they aren't going to remain small.

2) Last Saturday, the pastors and spouses of the Genesis Conference of the Free Methodist Church were invited to a breakfast hosted by the church in Batavia, NY. Our superintendent's husband had been busy making breakfast for everyone, even canning some jelly for us to be able to take home several jars. But there was a guest speaker there too, all the way from Western Canada (quite a distance to travel, even for a region that borders Canada) by the name of Mark Buchanan. He had been a pastor for several years, was currently a professor at a university, and had authored a few books including "Your God Is Too Safe" and "Your Church Is Too Safe" (I'm currently reading the first one I mentioned).

He spoke on the parable of the master who went away and left three of his servants various sums of money: 5 talents, 2 talents, 1 talent. After an undisclosed amount of time the master returned, and discovered that the first two had doubled what was given to them, and he had a party with them. But the third man faithfully managed what he had been given. He played it completely safe, didn't risk anything, and returned the full amount he had been given.

He was not only not invited to party, he was promptly thrown out completely.

Mark Buchanan then said the thing that bothered him about the parable was that there should have been a fourth guy who invested, but lost what he was given. How would the master react to that?

Then he realized that perhaps there was a fourth man, and he drew our attention to the parable of the Prodigal son, who demanded of his father his share of the inheritance and immediately went out and squandered it, only to return home to find that his father had been waiting for him to return the whole time. He didn't care that his money was gone, he had a party for his son who returned.

The lesson, it seems, is that simply managing is worse in God's eyes than taking what He's given you, blowing it, but then coming back.

3) While we were gone an incident happened, and it was looking like our church may finally need to replace the office copier (it is 15 years old after all). I began looking at options and found one that sounded pretty good. It wasn't going to be cheap, but considering how expensive getting a technician out to repair an office machine that could potentially break down, it was in my mind "spend some now to save probable future costs." And there were people who supported me in that, if not exactly for that one machine, certainly the principle. And it would have been expensive, but it wouldn't have exactly been the "safe" thing to do considering the volume of printing and copying we do a month, how many people we have attending, our budget, etc. It would have represented a sense that "We're not going to remain like this forever."

Instead, others decided it would be better to replace a large, commercial copier, with one suitable for an in-home office. They are, after all, much cheaper.

Why "The Difference Between "Manger" and "Manager"?

Despite a one letter difference, the two words "manger" and "manager" represent two completely different things (duh!).

An effective manager has only to keep what he or she manages at a certain level so that productivity doesn't decrease, costs don't increase, and everything runs just as good, if not perhaps a little better, than it always has. As long as a manager can do that, they might be considered "successful" in the sense they didn't fail, they maintained.

When Henry Ford began "The Ford Motor Company", he began much like many other car manufacturers did at the time, building each car by hand with specifically made parts. But then he had the idea to standardize the parts and create an assembly line where each part could be added piece by piece by specialized labor, and a complete "Model T" could go from scrap metal to finished product in one hour. And that's what he's celebrated for.

But then he went from being a visionary to being a manager. He wasn't the inventor of the automobile, but he was the revolutionary who invented the new way they were made. The Model T may have been inexpensive and put America on the road, but he held onto it to the point where it became an anchor for the Ford Motor Company that prevented it from moving forward. While other big car manufacturers were changing their designs and incorporating new features, Henry Ford stuck with what made him a household name, except it then turned him into a laughingstock.

Yet good managers are celebrated.

A manger is, by all definitions, nothing very special. It's what scraps of food not fit for human consumption are put in for farm animals to eat from.

For Christians though, it's what our Savior was put to rest in. (On an aside, I wonder if the manger was cleaned before placing Him there?). So we don't even see it as a feeding trough anymore. We see it as an almost sacred object, and I think because of that, we've lost something extremely important. We have sterilized the most incredible event in all of human history and removed the fact that God was not acting like a manager by seeing His Son placed in a manger.

Have you ever wondered how things might be different if God's plan to save humanity looked more like ours?

What if God decided to "manage" the sin problem humanity had. Maybe through some administrative brilliance He could have driven down the cost of sin while increasing the productivity of Christians. And why couldn't He? He's God, right? He should be the greatest manager ever! If anyone could do that, He could!

What if He decided that sending His Son to make things right was just too big a risk? The costs up front were just too much to handle, and besides millions, if not billions, of people would reject Him. Let's just manage and keep things at a good level, maybe hope for some growth later on.

"Manger" represents a risk that a "manager" won't take, not a good manager and certainly not a great one.

You might say though "Yeah, well it's easy to take a risk when you know the outcome, and God is all knowing, right? So was it really a risk?"

I took a risk when I asked my girlfriend Buffy Law to be my wife. I knew she was going to say "Yes" (as she had indicated to me before that if I were to "pop the question" she would say yes), but I still had to ask her, and even if the possibility was remote, there was still that bit of a thought that she could, or would, say no. I came to find out later that while I was putting money away on a ring, she was getting more and more upset with me for having to pay for our dates, so she was actually considering breaking up with me.

While that example may not entirely fit with how God knows the outcomes of our decisions perfectly, we should keep in mind that His foreknowledge is not causative. In other words, just because He knows what's going to happen, it doesn't mean His knowledge determines what's going to happen.

When God created us in His image, that is He gave us the ability to make choices, to create, to participate with Him in creation and to be His representative to all of creation, that in itself was a big risk. A God who doesn't believe in risks would have never given His creation the ability to make choices. But then, relationship with His creation wouldn't be real either.

What we're left with is a God who takes risks, and celebrates His creation that also takes risks. Was the master happy that the one given 5 talents doubled it to 10, and the one given 2 talents doubled it to four (making him even richer)? Or was it that they took a risk?

Was the father condemning of his prodigal son for squandering his inheritance?

In both cases, those who played it safe have a hard lesson to learn.

Manger? Or Manager? Which will we be?

Monday, November 6, 2017

Peace in the Midst of Tribulation

Yesterday, Sunday November 5, I had made the choice to worship in a church a couple hours from my home while my wife proclaimed the message to our congregation (it was her idea that I go). I had no radio on, did not check my phone, and had no idea that there had been a shooting at a church just outside of San Antonio, Texas.

I've read various things about it, and saw Facebook posts and Twitter posts saying that it is awful, and if we can't be safe in a church, where can we be safe?

I realized something though with those statements: the goal of the Christian life isn't to be safe.

Please don't get me wrong, it isn't my intention whatsoever to diminish or lack empathy for those who lost friends and family in this tragedy, including the pastor and his wife who lost their 14 year old daughter. We should mourn with those who mourn when evil is unleashed on them. All of humanity is created in the image of God, and therefore, as John Donne put it, "no man is an island, entire of itself..."

Perhaps though we tend to pay special attention when it happens in our country, because we don't expect it? But why don't we?

In the world you will have tribulation

These words were spoken by Jesus, in John 16:33, the full quote you can find here. He went on to say that He revealed this to us so that, in Him, we may have peace.

The persecution of Christians under the Romans was well documented. The Apostle Paul writes at great length what he endured, and at times reminds the readers that he too greatly persecuted and condemned to death Christians. Jesus Himself was put to death on one of the most brutal torture devices ever, the Roman cross. The Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 2 that Christians are called to have the same mind as Jesus did, and in verse 8 of chapter 2 we read that it includes being obedient to the point of death.

To this day there are millions of Christians who live with the threat of persecution, even execution, as a reality. Yet they don't run away from it, they know that Jesus Himself endured a torturous death. What greater honor is there to them that they would suffer as He did?

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that we glorify in the deaths of millions of Christians, whether at home or around the world. Yet I don't believe that we should be so naive to think that our Christianity gives us a pass when it comes to experiencing suffering, persecution, or even death.

Persecution and Tribulation Doesn't Stop The Gospel

Since our Lord established His kingdom through His death, burial, and resurrection, the world (i.e. those at odds with Christ and His kingdom) has tried to silence His message through torture, persecution, and putting Christians to death. The result has been the same: the gospel message has spread.

Christianity has spread in China, in India, in the Middle East, in parts of Africa and Asia despite it being outlawed, having Bible's burned, and Christian leaders disappearing never to be seen again.

In these places official numbers are hard to come by, but even the most conservative of estimates say that the underground Churches number in the millions.

But why?

The Kingdom of God is unlike any other thing that we could come to know and understand, because it unlike anything this world can understand.

The Apostle Paul's teacher Gamaliel once said of the young Christian Church that other movements had come and gone, and if God is not behind this movement of Christians, it too would fade. But, if God was behind them, then what could they do to stop it?

Do We Really Understand?

Again, let me be clear in stating that we should, in no way, rejoice in any act of evil. Though persecution of Christians and the Church has failed to bring about its demise and we can rejoice that there have been those willing to die for the Kingdom of God, I also believe that when it comes to truly understanding what we are called into when we accept Jesus' invitation to become part of His family, we don't have a clue.

Christian television is bloated with people who say that those with real faith don't suffer, have fat bank accounts, good jobs, big homes, and experience God's favor in all of their dealings.

In addition, they write books on how to get your best life now, how to have all that you ever dreamed of, to receive blessing and minimize (or eliminate) negativity.

Even if we reject "Word Faith" and "Prosperity" theology, we still might not really understand that Christianity, though freely offered to us through the work of Jesus, calls us to be like Jesus in how He lived His life and how He faced death.

If we actually did understand the life we are called into would we be so concerned about issues that don't really matter?

We get all up in arms over traditional hymns verses contemporary choruses.

We argue over which politician will do the most good for the Church.

There's a longstanding tension between preaching the gospel, sin and all, verses doing good for others in the world, as though the two are mutually exclusive.

We think that "tribulation" must mean the end of the world, so we look at things happening in the American Church but ignore that millions of Christians are living through tribulation right now. And when it does happen here, we cry "It's the beginning of the tribulation!"

We argue over women being ordained to lead Churches.

We'll split over the color of paint and carpet.

Don't like the pastor? That's okay, go to another Church and find a pastor you do like.

It is my belief that we have used our "Freedom of Worship" as a "License to be complacent" when it comes to actually understanding what being a Christian means. The Church in the United States and throughout Europe and other Westernized countries isn't suffering because we're losing our freedom guaranteed to us by the government. It's because we don't actually understand what we are called to.

So now what?

In the past couple years we've seen Church tragedies in Charleston, South Carolina; just outside of Nashville, TN, and now just outside of San Antonio, TX. Undoubtedly there will be those who call for tougher gun laws. There will be Christians who insist on concealed carry. There will be good men and women, perhaps even Christians, who come down on one side or the other on these and other related issues.

But, is that really what we need to be doing? Debating the right course of action in the aftermath of tragedy based on fear? Doesn't the perfect love of God cast out fear? Doesn't Jesus say "You will have tribulation, but I'm telling you this so that you can have my peace?" And when He says "Have My peace" notice it isn't spelled "p-i-e-c-e" as in a firearm.

As humans we ought to know that we all, at some point, will experience death. Many of us just don't know how we will. Should't our response be that we instead turn our focus toward God and what He wants for us and from us?

Maybe instead of tougher gun laws, we become practitioners of peace. Maybe instead of more concealed carry, we confront the sin that our Savior has broken the power of, not with bullets, but with His blood. How about our biggest concern becomes "Lord, did others see You in me today?"

Monday, October 30, 2017

We Have To Do Better

On Saturday, October 28, 2017 I found myself surrounded by women. It wasn't by accident, it was by choice. This wasn't a random group of women, they were women called into ministry just as I was called into ministry. I knew I was going to be outnumbered. I knew that I could potentially hear some things that, in my base reaction, I might recoil or say "No, it isn't really like that." I went, not to defend my own calling, or how God calls, but to listen and to understand to the best of my ability, as a man, the reality that women who are called into ministry face.

There was a conference underway in Pasadena, California that was focused on women in ministry. It wasn't about "Women's Ministry" which might be an acceptable term in many, if not most, conservative evangelical circles. It was something that the people at Missio Alliance put together, and it was called "She Leads".

Before I get into what I actually took away from the conference itself, I want to say that a group of us didn't actually go to Pasadena to attend it. The miracle (and headache) of technology made it possible for us to attend via video broadcast over the internet. We had gone to the superintendent's home to watch (and at points listen) and I didn't know exactly what to expect. Women in ministry conference, surrounded by women, in my superintendent's home (who just happens to be a woman as well). My wife even said I should consider taking some time to myself because there may not be much there for me. I said "No, I want to understand as best as I can how great the struggle for you is." Or something to that effect. Bottom line, I attended.

Our Superintendent, Pam Braman, and her husband Marsh (the only other male in the home that day) made us all feel welcome, but I want to emphasize that she made me feel welcome. There was never any point where I felt as though I shouldn't be there, and that could have easily been the case given the conference we were watching and my gender being easily outnumbered.

As the video from the conference started, one thing that I noticed was that a man was the co-MC for the event. Every speaker emphasized that both men and women need to be working together in ministry, but to see a man co-MC'ing the conference intended to resource and encourage women to pursue ministry God has called them into spoke to me louder. It wasn't simply words that would make even the thought of women being in real ministry leadership positions more palatable, it was a reality that they wanted to demonstrate.

And now, some thoughts that I had in my takeaway:

I have always done this!

I'm first going to say that I don't remember the names of the speakers. I'm not good with names like that, but the first speaker who got up told the story of how her father and her uncle pastored churches across the street from one another. Her father's church was a Baptist Church, her uncle's church was a Pentecostal Church, and often she, her cousins, and the other neighborhood children would "play" church on Sundays once both services were over. There would be discussions and disagreements over who would be the music director, who would do the greeting, who would fill all the vital roles, but there was never a disagreement over who would be the pastor. She was always the pastor. Whether it was because she had the gift for it then, or because nobody else wanted to be the pastor she didn't say. However, from a young age she took on that mantel.

I may not be a woman, but I can identify with knowing your calling from a young age. When her father retired from ministry he told his church's board of trustees that he didn't have a son who could fill the pulpit, but he had a daughter that could, and that she would. The trustees tried to dismiss it, but it was taken to the congregation for a vote that wasn't done by ballot and counted in a room elsewhere in the church. He said that his daughter needed to see how many people supported her in ministry by standing, and that would be a "YES" vote. Whether it was because nobody wanted to out themselves or they were simply following what everyone else was doing, everybody stood and she was named the next pastor.

Then she said that lasted all of 24 hours. The fallout began, and the trustees examined the bylaws of the church to try to invalidate the vote. They were unsuccessful, but the story left an impression on me.

On the one hand we (and by "we" I mean myself and the Wesleyan holiness tradition I was born and raised in) have from our roots affirmed that women are called to minister. None of us wanted to be that person who said otherwise. But when it came time to actually put into practice what we affirmed, there would often be the backtracking. "Well, I support this, but I don't know if the rest of the church will." "This is something we have to embrace, but we also have to wait once the time is more appropriate." These are things that I have heard, and I have heard other Wesleyan holiness people say, both men AND women. And, maybe not overtly, we've done things to sabotage women who, from a young age, recognized that God had called them for this time and this place.

I thought back to the many times people have said to me "How can you possibly minister? You're just a kid! You have no life experience. We have grandkids and great grandkids your age" and thinking "What does that matter? God has called me and equipped me to preach, to pastor a church, who are you to say otherwise?" I heard the Holy Spirit say to me in that moment "Women who are called to ministry say the exact same thing, except it isn't their age others are looking at, it's their gender."

In that moment, I understood a whole lot better what the issue is, but then I also realized how much I didn't understand. I may be young now, but I won't always be (at least I hope not). But aside from some really expensive operations, a woman will always be a woman, created exactly as God made her to be. Someday people will stop using my age to undermine my call, but unless I speak up and live out my conviction that God calls and equips who He will regardless of gender, it will always be held against a woman that God couldn't have really called or equipped her, because she is a woman. I may believe that and affirm that, and even preach and write blog posts on it, and I may even encourage my wife to stand up and preach and support her as she figures out her calling, but unless I am like this woman's father, what have I really done to help change people's hearts and minds?

The Issue is Now, Not 20 years ago

The next speaker that got up and presented was a man who, I believe, had his heart and his mind in the right place. He was upfront and honest in saying that, for men, it's an intellectual issue. By that I don't mean women are limited in their capacity to learn and understand the scripture and communicate it effectively, and I know he didn't mean that either. What he was saying that "Women called into ministry" is something we experience, as men, as something that needs to be studied. He acknowledged that scholars, theologians, pastors, and other deep spiritual thinkers have used the same set of scriptures and come to completely different conclusions. So his objective wasn't to change minds so much as it was to simply present stories of women in scripture who have led and draw our own conclusions. That is a very male thing to do.

For women though (and again this isn't something that I can know from experience) it isn't about an intellectual issue, and I think he stated very well that this might be the most significant barrier between a man understanding the issue and a woman understanding the issue. A calling isn't something left to the intellect, it's the reality that we're called to embrace. The fact is women are called and equipped to minister, to lead churches and ministries, but they are far too often dismissed simply because she is a woman.

The problem though was that he was speaking from research and articles and conversations he had 20 years ago, with very little emphasis placed on what is being done now, or contemporary articles and conversations he's had recently.

The past can be a wonderful guide for the Church, but it can also be an anchor. Yesterday is gone, never to be repeated. The Church is not equipped to minister to the past, it has to exist in the present and speak to the present, and work where God is calling us, to labor with Him in how He is remaking the world.

With that said, I am glad he got up and addressed the conference in the way he did. It helped me to understand that Jesus settled the issue long ago. He called women to be His disciples. Mary sat at Jesus' feet, the proper place for a disciple learning from a rabbi. Mary Magdalene was the first to proclaim the full gospel message that the Lord had been raised from the dead, and a new reality was being formed. But for most of the Church's history, the men have been stuck in the past, mostly to our own traditions. Women, us men need you to help us understand better, more completely, the world that our Lord is calling us to help Him create in the right here, right now.

Women and Men Complete the Image of God

The last speaker I'll mention spoke quite profoundly, and I would say was the perfect person to drive home the fundamental point of the "She Leads" conference.

We read in the very first chapter of the Bible that God created man and woman in His image. This isn't about looks, it's about character and it's about attributes. Men were created with certain character traits and attributes that reveal part of who God is, but men weren't given the full image of God. Women were created with certain character traits and attributes that reveal part of who God is, but women weren't given the full image of God either. We were both created with the image of God in such a way that, when we work together as God created us to, we provide the rest of creation with the full image of God.

But all too often women who attain leadership roles, whether they be in the Church or in the secular world, are told either explicitly or implicitly that they have to lead like a man leads. They have to act like a man does in order to be accepted in leadership.

What happens though when a woman does? Is she considered conniving? Manipulative? Exploitative? Opportunistic? Ruthless? Overly ambitious?

I see a problem with that, but it isn't the one you might think it is. On the surface it sounds as though the problem is when a woman consents to acting like a man in order to get ahead (another way of putting it might be "doing as she's told"), she's "punished" for it with a slew of negative adjectives that, if she were actually a man, would be spun much more positively. "Conniving" might be considered "cunning"; "manipulative" might be considered "calculating"; and so on. But that's on the surface, though I would say it's very wrong on our part, as men, to label a woman such things when we've done them ourselves and congratulated one another for them, even putting a positive spin on it.

The greater problem I see, and I'll even call it a sin, is to say that she should be expected to lead like a man at all. Wouldn't it be fair to say that if God created women to lead like men that He simply would have created them as men to begin with? Do we really think that about our Creator God? What would a world full of men actually look like? Be like?

Women, created in the image of God, were also created to lead in ways that a man, created in the image of God, cannot. This is not an oversight on God's part, this was done by His design. He created man and woman in His image and declared us to be "very good."

Where it becomes sin is we, as the Church, the bride of Christ, are supposed to have our minds renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are supposed to know better! And yet the Church largely participates in perpetuating the ways of the world that God has called us out of. If some Churches get to the point where they'll affirm a woman as their pastor, the expectation often is she'll do it like the men who came before her. Why hasn't the Church recognized that God created woman to lead uniquely as a woman? To place any expectation that she not act like a woman when leading is to deny how God created her.

What's worse, it isn't just men who bought into this. Too many times women have done this themselves. In the conversations around our superintendent's home when the conference was in break I heard the women say "I've felt as though I needed to lead like a man, and I just accepted that." There isn't a set amount of people who need to buy into a lie in order for it to become the truth, and the Church, both men and women within the Church, has bought into the lie. It's still a lie.

Women, lead as God created you to lead. Please don't be afraid to embrace your womanhood and lead like a man, in order to appease those who may not fully accept who you are, but lead as God has uniquely created you to lead.

Final Thoughts

Some time after the viewing party of the conference wrapped up, and my wife and I were enjoying a rare date night, I asked her if I have been completely supportive of her developing her ministerial role in the church. She paused for a moment, then said that I have said the right things, and to an extent I've backed up the things I've said. However, there have been times when I have stopped short of fully embracing her as a minister of the gospel, and despite all the encouraging words, she's felt frustrated, and wondered if I really do consider her to be a minister.

I didn't try to fight her on that. I couldn't, she was sharing with me honestly how she felt. I listened, and I asked her what I needed to do better in order for what I say I believe to align with my actions? We talked some more, and I realized that I can't wait for a new opportunity to put into practice everything I learned from "She Leads." Change isn't going to happen right away, but it's got to start right now. This journey we're on together is going to be a work in progress, but putting off that progress doesn't address right here, right now.

Church, we need to address this issue and many others, right now. The Kingdom of God, the remaking of our world, has begun by what Jesus did for us. But it's not yet fully realized, and a large part of that is because the Church has failed to bring it to fruition. In many ways we have perpetuated the sin. Sitting around and waiting for the Lord to make everything right isn't going to work, especially since He commanded us to go into the world, make disciples, and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are supposed to know the right thing to do. If we don't do it, it is sin. Waiting to do it isn't doing it. Once we know the truth, we have to live the truth, seeing to our speech lines up with our actions.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Me Too?

I have seen this phrase popping up on my news feed on Facebook for a couple of days now, and I'm sure those who are reading this have also: "Me too."

It's used to bring awareness to women who have been subjected to sexual harassment, no doubt as such powerful men as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and many others have been called to account for their misdeeds. On the one hand it's discomforting to me to see just how many people I know have been posting this. But on the other hand I wonder if we're dismissing the larger issue.

Sexual harassment is disgusting, let me be perfectly clear about that. And it is unacceptable in any way, shape, or form. Yet it is also a symptom of a much deeper problem. A symptom that can't be cured with a hashtag, regardless of how effective it might be in bringing about awareness.

The Church, instead of providing the solution to the problem, has often exacerbated it. Please don't get me wrong, I deeply love the Church, and I want what's best for it, but for hundreds of years leaders within the Church have wrongly stated, whether implicitly or explicitly, that women are inferior to men. They will point to just a handful of scriptures that, on the surface, seem to speak of leadership roles within God's kingdom being given to men, while denying women who are just as gifted and called to use their talents for the Kingdom a place at the table. They might be saying their place is in the kitchen instead.

But wasn't it Joel, and later the Apostle Peter, who wrote and said that "sons and daughters" would prophesy? Wasn't it Deborah who became a judge over Israel, one of only two to also be a prophet? Could the God who spoke the universe into existence in six days time and form us in His image really not have found any suitable men to fill that role, as many will claim? What of Esther? What of those women who followed Jesus along with the men and helped support His ministry? Why commend Mary who assumed the position of a learner sitting at the feet of her rabbi when Martha was the one doing "women's work"? What of Priscilla? What of Lydia? What of Junia? What of all those commended by the Apostle Paul in Romans 16? What of the countless others such as Miriam, Rahab, Ruth? Are we to assume that a few verses isolated from the greater context is the basis of centuries old doctrine that have made millions, perhaps billions, of women feel inferior?

The Church has, for a long time, had difficulty adhering to the whole of scripture when there are so many things that can be tailored to our own biases, but we're seeing the fruit of that being brought to bear in our world. Sexual harassment has never been a good thing, as it objectifies human life that has been made in the very image of God. But because the Church has allowed men to make assumptions that God never intended, sexual harassment, objectification, the jokes that are told in locker rooms and board rooms, are spoken and left unchallenged by the people who should know better.

John chapter 8 begins Jesus at the temple when a woman who was caught in adultery being brought to Him. She was guilty, and everyone knew it. The scribes and pharisees who caught her in the act stated that the punishment according to the Law was that she be stoned. Jesus didn't disagree with them, but instead wrote something in the stand, and after a short while said "Okay, but let the one who hasn't sinned cast the first stone." And He went back to writing in the sand.

Slowly her accusers turned away and left, until it was just her and Jesus. Jesus gave her pardon, adding that she was to sin no more.

Why bring this story up when what I'm talking about in this post is sexual harassment, not adultery, especially when she was guilty of that?

It's simple. These people that brought her before Jesus were not looking for God's justice. They were looking for a way they could accuse Jesus of either not following the Law, or discredit Him by refusing to show mercy when much of His ministry was based on that. She wasn't a person, she was just an object.

What we often overlook though, and I think this might have been Jesus' point, was she wasn't committing adultery by herself. There had to have been another person with her, a male person. Where was he? And how was it that these leaders knew about this woman sinning but chose at that time to confront her? Again, she wasn't what mattered, it was all about trapping Jesus. For that matter they didn't need the man with her for that.

She was someone to Jesus. She was created in His image, and she had sinned, but she was shown mercy, compassion, and grace while being told not to sin anymore.

I believe where this applies to us today is we will say women bring it on themselves by how they dress, how they carry themselves, or every other excuse we can think of. But what if we're just using that to excuse our own biases? Women are the objects of men's lusts, not unlike a finely crafted sports car or any other "thing" we crave. And whatever we have to do to satisfy our lust, we will! We'll say it's not really our fault. We'll say that scripture even talks about women needed to be submissive.

If Jesus could see the human dignity and worth in a woman caught in the midst of sin, why can't we see women who have been treated like second-class kingdom citizens, often because of our own doing?

Our minds are supposed to be renewed and transformed by the Holy Spirit living and working in us. We are supposed to see the dignity and value of all human life as being the image bearers of our God and Creator. We are not supposed to perpetuate the evil, either overtly or covertly, that we see around us. Church, if women are being harassed sexually or subjected to any kind of attitude or action that degrades who they are as a person, we are to confront it, not perpetuate it or ignore it.

There is however one last thing I want to mention. "Me too" focuses on the victim, but does not call to account the perpetrator. We can't rightly cry for justice if we're unwilling to confront those who do evil. And it's evil that doesn't restrict itself to one race of people, or gender. I know, because there was a time in my life I was made uncomfortable when a female co-worker tried to come on to me, and I wasn't having any of it. I told her to stop, and when she didn't I took it to a supervisor.

Church, we need to do better than we have. We need only to look at ourselves and why we have allowed sin to run rampant when we, who have been redeemed, renewed, and transformed have largely sat back and done nothing at best, encouraged it at worst.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Time To...Kneel? How about a time to heal!

Much has already been stated about the protests the NFL players, owners, and pundits demonstrated this past Sunday, so what could an obscure pastor in small town America have to say about it that hasn't already been said?

Well, I wrote earlier on my Facebook page that very rarely, if ever, has the United States been truly united in anything but name only. And I stand by that assessment as someone who loves and studies history as much as I do. We are truly an enigma of a country. How did we ever come to exist as an independent nation? The Founding Fathers aren't this monolithic group of men that held every belief and ideal in common. They were people with flaws like us who, despite their differences, found a way to come together and create something bigger than any single one of them could. Perhaps best representative of that reality is the aristocratic Thomas Jefferson facing off with the poor immigrant Alexander Hamilton. Both had a vision of America deeply rooted in vastly different experiences and backgrounds, but this young nation needed both, as well as the many others who fell somewhere in between.

There has always been a divide between the "haves" and the "have nots." It's the result of sin's presence in the world. Some may be dismissive that this divide exists, insisting that if one simply works hard enough, any circumstance can be overcome. Others may be very aware of it and work to remove those barriers. These realities did not come about with the founding of our nation, they have been part of our world from nearly the very beginning. And despite what some might say, I do not believe it was God's intention to create the world this way.

There has always been those clamoring for justice against injustice. But we can't seem to agree on what that means. We all might have an idea of what it means, but like everything else it's an opinion rooted in our experiences.

I think for many, it is hard to reconcile how athletes who have multi-million dollar contracts to play a game could speak about injustice, when those who risk their lives on a day to day basis often have difficulty making ends meet. And what about teachers? What about preachers?

Others might say they are using their rarefied platform to bring these issues to the forefront and make them the forefront of the national conversation, forcing us to take notice. Many of these athletes may have come from those neighborhoods that are surrounded by their vision of injustice, so it's an issue that is near and dear to them.

I think there are some good arguments that can be made on all sides, but truth be told I'm done with arguing.

A big part of the problem, as I see it, is governments and legislation have never been able to fix the problems that plague our world, because the problem is sin. Legislation cannot fix sin. Better education and better opportunities cannot fix sin. Redistribution of wealth or pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps cannot fix sin. Better morals and values cannot fix sin. There is nothing in this world that can fix the problem of sin outside of the blood of Jesus that was shed so that we no longer had to live in the power of sin.

We as the redeemed people of God have the command from our Lord and Savior to both preach the gospel, proclaim repentance, and to do good works that glorify our Father in heaven. We have the Spirit of the Lord which raised Him from the dead alive in us, making it possible for us to do "greater things" than Jesus did.

What did our Savior do exactly? He knelt, but He did so in prayer. He knelt to reach down and pick others up whom society ignored and marginalized. He never knelt in protest, not that I read in scripture anyway. He knelt to write something in the sand that caused those clamoring for justice according to the Law to leave without carrying out that justice. His kneeling always seems to be followed by an action, it wasn't simply a gesture.

Like this country though, the Church in the United States seems to have differing views on what it means to truly represent Jesus. There are those who will preach the gospel to the exclusion of everything else. There are others who will take up for any and every cause. What was Jesus' cause though? What did He do to advance His cause? He preached the truth, and He worked. The two are not mutually exclusive concepts, and in fact should be brought together in order to proclaim and demonstrate the fullness of the gospel.

Why is there so much injustice in our country that athletes are willing to protest when one of the popular narratives of American evangelism is that we're a country founded on Christian principles? Maybe we as Christian Americans need to do some soul-searching on our own narrative, rather than be so quick to defend the actions of our country as though to speak out against it is to speak out against the gospel itself!

Rather than focusing on who's right, who's wrong, and why they're right or wrong, why can't we focus on the people God empowered us to be? The bearers of His image! The person that we see Jesus being! And imitating the person we see Jesus being! Not the image of Him we create to give ourselves comfort, but the Son of Man that the Bible describes Him as and the Holy Spirit that testifies His truth! To focus on anything distracts us from what we're here to do. That however doesn't give us a license to ignore what's going on. Rather, we should be at the forefront, not only speaking God's perspective, but demonstrating it.

In a worldly sense, kneeling in an NFL stadium may bring to light the things that are wrong. But ultimately what will it accomplish? As Christians, our focus needs to be on God, our Lord and Savior Jesus, and the Holy Spirit who empowers us to live and work as He did. We, under direction of the Lord, need to kneel in prayer, in repentance, and then get up and demonstrate how our God heals what is broken.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Concerning History

We have a BIG problem. That may also be one of the biggest understatements I've ever made.

For this post I'm going to start off with a personal story. The year was 1998 and I was a 14 year old kid who was given the opportunity of my life (up to that point): playing in a soccer tournament in Belgium. This was something I was sent a letter and selected to participate in, and I was thrilled.

I remember the morning I left. We were going to be flying out of Toronto and my dad couldn't get me to our meeting spot in Buffalo without being late for work. So we decided that I would spend some time with one of my teammates for this trip, and he just happened to be a black kid. I'll freely admit I was nervous, not out of fear or anything negative, but because I hadn't spent much time around black people. I didn't know quite what to say, or do, they were listening to music that was foreign to me. Yet I wasn't afraid, or scared. I was just nervous, this was a fairly new experience. I think we ended up kicking a soccer ball around until it was time to leave.

We soon left for the bus to take us up to Toronto, and soon we'd be on our way to Belgium. Our time there was relatively short, just a bit over a week. Sure we'd have the games to play, but the rest of the time was spent sightseeing. We went to an amusement park, visited Brussels, Bruges, Waterloo, and a small fortification just outside of Antwerp, the city we were staying in. It was Fort Breendonk. Sure it's a funny name, but it has a terrible history.

It's service began shortly before the outbreak of World War I. The walls had been covered in five meters (over 15 feet) of earth to further protect it from bombing, and surrounded by a moat. It was built to help defend Antwerp, but the Germans found a way to capture the city without having to attack the fort. It's true horror though came during World War II when it was used as a prison camp and a transfer station to the bigger and more well known concentration camps. It was a particularly brutal camp. The prisoners were forced to remove the earth that had been built up around the walls of the fort, and they had to remove it often with little more than pick axes. The commandant would unleash his German Shepherd "Lump" on the inmates for his own amusement. "Trials" held at the fort often resulted in hanging or the prisoners in front of a firing squad, while the others watched. It is estimated that as many as 3600 people were held there between 1940 and the end of the war, though never more than 600 at a time.

The fort is very well preserved, actually considered to be among the best preserved prison camps from Nazi rule. The Belgian government has operated it as a museum since 1947, and it made quite an impression on me back then, and it still does to this day.

What I didn't think much about then however was how I initially felt just before leaving, and then seeing what fear, paranoia, and hatred of the "other" had led to represented by Fort Breendonk. It's easy to let fear, bigotry, and hatred get out of control and commit violent acts as a response. As much as we want to think our problems are in the past, they're not.

It would have been easy for the Belgian government to destroy the fort, to remove it from history because of what happened there. But they recognized that, as much as it represented evil, it could be used to educate future generations and maybe turn them away from the cruelty that occurred there and elsewhere.

That brings us to today, where we have the ongoing issue of whether or not memorials to the Confederacy should remain or be removed. I would say it's a debate, but that would be wrong because debates are supposed to be civilized exchanges of rhetoric to try to win support for your beliefs or cause and move others to join you. What we've seen in contrast is fringe groups on both sides turn to violent outbursts, even driving vehicles into a crowd. Meanwhile mobs have taken it upon themselves to not wait for official word and destroyed some of the monuments themselves. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, I would hope we could all agree that the destruction of property by a mob is going way too far.

Getting to the underlying issue however is how should our history be remembered? Is it right to say that the Civil War was fought for nothing but the preservation of slavery in the South and the abolition of slavery in the North? Well, we could say that, but would it be accurate?

I think one of the most prominent beliefs is that nearly everyone in the South had slaves, but that isn't true. What is true however is that the Southern economy, mostly agrarian, was mostly dependent on slavery. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that what the majority of the Confederate soldiers fought for was slavery, but within the greater context of preserving what they had come to know. This may be especially true if we consider that politicians were convinced that they were losing their influence in Congress, and many preachers were combining a sort of nationalism with a little bit of scripture taken out of context. Given that this is what they were exposed to, they might see their fight in bigger and more important terms than slavery, though let's not forget that slavery did provide the foundation for their way of life.

What about the North fighting to end slavery? Well, I don't believe that's entirely accurate either. During its colonial history, New England had been the place where slavery in the United States developed with Boston leading the way. Slavery was still legal into the early 19th century, but even after emancipation was granted attitudes didn't change in any meaningful way. Even with emancipation in the North, the economy, in particular the textile and shipping industries was still dependent on the institution of slavery and likely wasn't in any hurry to see it end. Union general Ulysses S Grant owned at least one slave and managed his father-in-law's property which had several slaves that he looked after. His wife Julia also had slaves who had been her playmates when they were children.

Let's not forget that though the North may have been emancipated, it didn't stop slave labor from happening, in particular the Irish.

This all leads me to believe that while slavery was a central and an important issue for the Civil War, there were many other issues along with that, and it's not entirely clear which side was more right than the other, although I should make it abundantly clear that I believe slavery, whether in its historical context or in its contemporary iteration of human trafficking, is abhorrent and should be brought to an end.

For me though, the real fight that we're dealing with today began in the aftermath of the Civil War. If the Civil War was fought to simply bring an end to slavery and the attitudes surrounding it, then the conclusion of the war should have been the conclusion of the matter. However, Reconstruction proved otherwise. While the "Radical Republicans" wanted to punish the former Confederacy, Democrats fought back and galvanized support against inclusion of the former slaves and black people in their participation of American life and liberty, even up to the late 1960s, 100 years after the War had come to an end.

History really is a lot more complicated than what it's made out to be, and we do ourselves and future generations a disservice when we try to reduce the complexities down to whatever suits our own narrative. The bottom line for me though comes down to this: I learned some history on the day I visited Fort Breendonk. Yeah, I had an awareness of World War II and why it was fought, but seeing the museum/monument forced me to confront it in a way that, almost 20 years later, I realize it affected me even more than I realized at that time.

Had Fort Breendonk been torn down at the end of World War II, what would the lesson have been? And what does this mean for us in the early part of the 21st Century in the United States?

Well, if we reduce the Civil War down to just "freedom vs. slavery", then it would be easy to say "Yes, tear down all those monuments." But I hope I've shown that it is more complicated than that, and that there were people on both sides who expressed attitudes and actions that we find disgusting. If Confederate monuments must be torn down because they represent slavery in our minds, why not be honest and tear down monuments to the Union as well, in particular those to Grant? Why do we forget that Lincoln may have signed the "Emancipation Proclamation" but also supported the former slaves leaving the country rather than staying. So why not picket The Lincoln Memorial as well? Or does fighting for the end of slavery really cover over the others things they did and attitudes they showed that aren't so good?

Furthermore, I wonder if those wanting to tear down the memorials also express an appreciation for Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Chairman Mao. If so, I find that to be an interesting...and disturbing...irony. It means values aren't grounded in anything other than whatever the popular trend is.

These reminders of our past force us to deal with the realities they represent. Nothing is accomplished by tearing them down, in fact we might be doing ourselves a huge disservice in the long run. Yet we also do ourselves a disservice by not digging deeper and discovering the truth. These monuments should be put in a context where that can take place. As the saying goes "Those who don't learn from their history are doomed to repeat it", or something like that.

The last thing I wish to mention though is tearing down monuments and statues will not erase ignorance, hatred, bigotry, and it certainly won't fix the sins of the past. Better laws, education, opportunity, communities, and societies can only go so far, but they can't heal the wounds either. The only thing that can truly bring about change is a heart that is transformed by the God who created all of humanity in His image, and desires that all take His offer to become part of His family and to be freed from sin and the desire to sin.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

"McDonald's can be the new American church"

The title of this blog post comes from a line of dialogue in the biopic The Founder, which portrays Ray Kroc (played by Michael Keaton) as the milkshake machine salesman (later corporate shark) as he tries to convince Dick McDonald (played by Nick Offerman) and his brother Maurice "Mac" McDonald (played by John Carroll Lynch) to let him be their guy in charge of franchising their hamburger stand across the nation. You can view the clip below:

As a pastor who strives to see culture through a spiritual, specifically Christian, lens, this phrase really stood out in the movie for many different reasons, not least of which is how Ray Kroc made the comparison in the first place.

First, I'm not sure if Kroc actually said that or not, but whether he did or didn't, in my mind, is immaterial. The drive to make things orderly, efficient, mechanical even down to the movements of the people, to provide a consistent product regardless of what actual location you're in, has been a part of the American culture probably from the time machines began taking over manual labor. Henry Ford introduced the assembly line so that he could turn more cars in one hour than other auto manufacturers could in one week.

It's on this that I want to first write about. In this way of doing things people are no longer people. They're labor, they're part of the machine, a very specific cog that's a small part of a bigger whole. By all accounts, from Ray's version of events to those who cast a more critical eye of him, he wasn't impressed by how polite the workers were at the McDonald brothers burger stand. He was impressed that they were mechanical. He was impressed that some study went into the design of the kitchen. He was impressed by nobody having to do too much or think too hard about what they were doing.

I wonder if sometimes we fall into the same trap. How many times do we see people in a church? Real people that are worthy of more than just a handshake and a "Hey, how are ya?" as we rush quickly and efficiently onto the next, worshiper in line? How many times do we focus on the bodies that are (or aren't) present, rather than peer into their souls? How often do numbers become our indicator of success? The money in the offering plate that week and the number who attended the service? Why not put on our signs the number of people who prayed in our sanctuaries?

The second point I want to focus on is, in that clip, Ray mentions that every little town he's been in has one thing in common: a church and a courthouse; religion and state; cross and a flag; and the flag guarantees the right of people gathering where a cross is displayed. He's saying this as his pitch to the brothers McDonald in order to convince them that he should be in charge of their franchising. It's almost like he's advocating for a trinity of sorts. Except that, as he puts it, they'll be open on more than just Sunday.

In many ways this is how we think though. We wrap the cross and the Bible up in the flag and think that because we're the United States of America we have this whole thing about unalienable rights figured out. That somehow our greatness enables people to worship whatever and however they want. And helping to drive all of this is economy, corporations, the dream of taking what you have and multiplying it, replicating it, making more of it for less.

Except the Declaration of Independence states that there are rights granted to us from a higher authority than government. It isn't our nation that made worship of God possible, and it isn't our nation that can guarantee it. In more parts of the world than not Christianity is illegal, and Christians are prosecuted, persecuted, and put to death on a daily basis. But the Middle East is experiencing a move of the Holy Spirit nearly unprecedented throughout its history. Throughout Asia as well governments can't stop its spread. Rome of the 1st Century took violent actions against Christians, with Nero even blaming them for the burning of Rome. But that didn't stop it. In fact, persecution helped it to grow as nobody wants to die for a lie.

Yet I think that simple line in that movie also reveals religion, perhaps specifically Christianity, is seen as just another cultural touch point, where we can choose to gather (or not), and sing our songs and share our values, and then go our separate ways to live our lives. This is what Ray wanted, another place, open all week, for people to be able to do just that. And maybe that's how we think of church also. It's a place where we all can gather around and learn values and morals and become better people who will "break bread" together.

For all its financial success though, McDonald's isn't the only burger place. In fact, there are many national burger chains and I would eat most of their burgers before I would dare eat a McDonald's burger. Why is that though?

One of my favorite places to stop on our yearly trip to Kentucky is a restaurant called "Steak and Shake", home of the steakburger. Most of the burgers on their menu you can get for $5 or less, and it's a real burger. There isn't anything fake about them. They have substance. That along with "Five Guys Burgers and Fries" are probably my two favorite nationally available burgers (though I wish Steak and Shake were a bit more national). 

A McDonald's burger, on the other hand, is more filler than beef, with artificial coloring to make the meat look better than it actually is. And though it may placate a grumbling stomach for a short time, it's ultimately unfulfilling. And yet, nobody can deny that McDonald's became the corporate juggernaut that it is based on an inferior product, simply because it filled a gap.

I wonder if people tend to treat church the same way. They're looking for something to grab onto, something that's going to leave them feeling satisfied and content. We want morals, but church isn't the only place to get them. We'll convince ourselves though that it's the best place to get them. We want values. Politicians even refer to values we're all supposed to share growing up in and going to church. But church isn't the only place to get values. We want shared experiences, but you can get that anywhere too.

What I'm ultimately getting at is that the church cannot represent the same thing that Ray Kroc told the McDonald brothers in order to convince them to let him franchise their restaurant. It can't even represent the same thing our nation represents. Christianity is not McDonald's, it is not the United States, it is not the American flag or rights, it is not simply a place to learn good values and have a moral foundation. It is a relationship that transforms who we are from the inside out, so that we are not the same people we were before. It's not up to us to market the church and put it out on the buffet of beliefs. I can go anywhere to get a burger. There are other countries that have stable, freedom loving governments. There's only one thing in this world that truly transforms our lives and makes us into who we were made to be.

McDonald's will never be the new American church.