Monthly Archives: October 2012

Reformed and – like it or not – always being re-formed

Today is Reformation Day.  I know you already know that – after all it’s a HUGE Hallmark holiday and all our kids are giddy with excitement that celebrating this day means lots of candy and dressing up like long dead people.  Really – what’s not to like!

Okay… so in reality it’s a nothing of a holiday here except for nerdy pastors and seminary students in the Protestant tradition.  On this day we remember Martin Luther and his 95 thesis.  We remember the hard work of those who came before us to imagine the faith in new (that were really old) ways.  Its work that never ends… we are constantly responding to God who tells us “I am doing a new thing, now it springs up.  Do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19).

The slogan that capture this is “Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda” which is Latin for something like “The Church reformed, and always being reformed.”  It is a rally cry of all Protestant Christians on some level and near and dear to those in the Reformed Tradition such as Presbyterians like me.  So here is the thing.  Often you will hear it said that we are, “Reformed and always reforming” rather than “Reformed, and always being reformed.”  Today this struck me again and it struck me as the heart of a lot of problem in the Church and our particular churches. 

Do you see the difference?  Know where I’m going?  Yup.  We like the idea of reforming… because it’s active and its sounds like we are the subject.  We are reforming our faith.  On the other hand if we are always being reformed… suddenly we are recipient of the reformation and not the subject.  We aren’t necessarily passive but we certainly aren’t in control.  And that’s the rub.  We like to be in control.  We like to set the agenda.  We like the idea of change… so long as we can pick and choose what is allowed to change and to what extent it can be messed with. 

Right now people all over are fighting over changes.  Changes to what constitutes a church.  Changes to how we articulate faith and even understand it and whether it’s a noun and intellectual understanding or a verb and a way of being.  Changes with how we package communal life in order to reach new and different people.  We even have to change the idea of evangelism for those interested in it because the church no longer has to reach out to those who don’t know Jesus or the church… they have to reach out to those who have active dislike of the church (many with long seeded and good reasons) and ambivalence to and even distrust of Jesus.  These are hard enough.. but we also have to see that God is changing?  REALLY – no.. God doesn’t change…. Well I’ve never been convinced of that but regardless God tells us God is doing something new.  God is a living God and sometimes I think we forget that… and God is on the move.   Israel, after years of slavery, was a new thing.  Kings rather than Judges was a new thing.  Jesus… NEW thing.  You can argue that Jesus is co-eternal and all that… but tell that to Peter and Andrew, James and John… to Nicodemus and Caiaphas and Paul… I mean even Paul is a new thing… Paul who was Saul. 

New.  “I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21)

So why do we cling to what has been?  Why do we call up the ways scripture has always been read and say it cannot change?  Why do we imagine that we know exactly who God will call into ministry and how and why and for what?  Why do we think we can “stand on the Word of God” as if that isn’t shifting sand?  Yes, yes.  On this Rock I will build my church… but when did Peter ever display anything less than shifty–ness? Let’s not try to make that mean more than it does. 

Its Reformation Day so for that matter look at John Calvin.  Good Calvinists will run to his four volumes of The Institutes of Christian Faith like some second Bible (okay maybe not… but sometimes we do – when it suits our cause).  But Calvin was never settled with it?  He kept revising and changing it… REFORMED AND ALWAYS BEING REFORMED.  Do you think Calvin would be happy with any of what it says 500 years later?  He wasn’t happy with it days after writing some of it… clearly by now it would be entirely new (zombie Calvin anyone?). 

Now I reign myself back.  Does the character of God change?  Not at God’s heart.  (Though ample evidence displays that how God acted from God’s heart changed… no more destroying with flood – do you hear that Pat Robertson… no abandoning God’s people in the wilderness no matter how often they break covenant… healing the demoniac daughter of the Syrophoenician woman… these are the primary example from the Bible that come to mind.)  But God works out God’s faith with fear and trembling too (Garden of Gethsemane anyone?)… doing a new thing when the world needs it.  Making us new… when we need it. 

We lament that change isn’t ours to control… rather we are changed –transformed and re-formed by the hands that knit us together in our mother’s womb.  And this is scary and it rarely fits our agendas… it fits the heart of God who formed us to be the image of God – a living witness and testimony to the heart of God who yearns that we love each other, who desires to make the lame walk, the blind see, the poor have good news preached to them.  The heart of God that seeks to, like a mother hen, gather us together under her wings.  When we are re-formed communally – its always about community and relationship with God – it is about bringing together, expanding neighbor, and breaking down walls.  So what is God’s new thing now?  What ways is God reforming us to bridge, expand, open up our understandings, our world, our faith to be a grander vision of God’s community than ever before?

God is at work whether we are prepared and willing to see it or not.  And if we do not perceive it God will grab anyone from an exile like Moses, or a sinner like Rahab, or a hermit like Elijah, or an outsider like Ruth, or a pillar of unexpected trust like Mary, or a fisherman like Peter, or a killer of God’s people like Saul turned into Paul, or a monk like Martin Luther… a laywer, a soldier, a doctor… God will grab anyone willing to perceive it and turn them into the source of re-formation willing or not, kicking and screaming all the way (and that’s just the prophet who usually doesn’t wish to be used, not to mention those of us trying to keep our ears closed).

So go out tonight and celebrate a bunch of dead people… whose lives were lived in order than we might see what means to perceive newness and follow God’s new thing.  Not a one of them, I think, would expect that we are living what they lived… but every single one would expect we are living the WAY they lived.

Always being reformed – thanks be to God. 

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What on Earth is the Gospel anyway?

I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times, “share the gospel.”  It read it tonight in something a friend of mine wrote and I was reminded to ask, for the one millionth time, “what does that even mean?”  The gospel… good news… Jesus… your faith… we could really put any of these into the blank of “share _____” and I’d still ask the same question.  I’m quite struck that we say that as if we all know what that means and we all mean the same thing by it.  Do you know what you mean by it? 

I’m also prepping a workshop on helping people grow in faith as part of an Evangelism Conference (there it is again… “Good News” Conference, or perhaps better translated “Share/Proclaim Good News” Conference).  Here again we run into the same problem.  It’s hard to share something if we don’t really know what it is we are sharing! 

So what is the “good news”, or what is the “gospel”?  To ask it another way, why is Jesus a good thing in your life and what difference does Jesus make in your life?

If we aren’t prepared to answer those questions for ourselves we certainly aren’t ready to share it, and help others to recognize it for themselves in their lives.  And yet it is – I think – a fundamental aspect of life lived in the way of Jesus Christ: to live as good news in the life of the world and help others to do the same. 

Now when I talk about evangelism I’m often fond of saying that the real trick to evangelism – or sharing good news – in the way of Jesus Christ is to be good news in someone’s life without ever mentioning Church or Jesus.  It’s not that Church and Jesus aren’t good or important; it’s that we tend to make the mistake of reducing the good news to an invitation to church on Sunday, or to some form of debate to convince someone else of our creedal superiority.  None of that seems like the gospel good news to me.  The Gospel good news for me was always articulated best when Jesus responds to John’s disciples by saying that the answer to their question about whether or not he was the messiah could be seen in what was happening around him: blind people seeing, lame people walking, poor people finding hope.  (paraphrasing Luke 7:22)  That is to say, in the words of the 23rd Psalm, goodness and mercy follow him all the days of his life.

Do they follow you?  Is your life being lived as good news?  How do you define gospel and good news? Do you share them – not simply with your words, but with the day-to-day choices you make and the life you live?

Now that could be a finishing point but I want to take this reflection two steps further.  Are you going to work miracles on the order of healing blindness or making a lame person walk?  No, at least not literally.  But that hardly exempts us from living as incarnate good news in the world.  I believe that Jesus as incarnation of God is an invitation for us to be the same.  That we are to incarnate the same love God has given us.  So how do we live our life putting flesh and bones on love of neighbor?  Because that is, Jesus says, the heart of our command – the heart of the gospel – the heart of good news: to love our neighbor. 

And how do we love our neighbor? Think outside the box.  Often we decide to love our neighbor in the way that we would want or need to be loved ourselves (in this case loving our neighbor is still all about us).  But our neighbor isn’t us.  In that case we aren’t so much sharing good news as forcing other people to conform to our predetermined way of being/loving.  If, however, we are going to be THEIR good news and not simply OUR good news to them, than we have to learn enough about our neighbor to love them in the way they need to be loved.  We have to learn to be the good news they need to hear and see and experience.

Gospel/Good News is then, for me, about love and hope and healing and presence… at its heart it’s about relationship.  We are not alone, we are loved, we have future – and it is good.  Now let us go forth and find out how to live in a way that we make this true for our neighbors as well… whomever they may be, wherever we may encounter them.

So be it. Thanks be to God.

I Believe in Good Works

I’m coming off of five weeks preaching in the Letter of James; Martin Luther’s so called Epistle of Straw.  And I’ll admit there are plenty of problematic pieces to James’ letter.  But I like problematic pieces… if we avoid everything problematic than we are left with:

1) A very small canon within a canon (scriptures we actually read as having authority)

2) Something of a Mr. Potato head God who we get to dress up as we see fit.

So I dove into James head first to swim around a bit in the straw… and I have to say I liked it.  I’m kind of a James guy in fact.  Oh I agree he is a too incendiary, shame is far too high on his list of rhetorical devices, and his world view is a far too polarized for my liking, but none of those prevented us from having great conversations.  And what they helped me to realize is that I’m really kind of into the whole “works” thing.

I think most people want to avoid it because James’ rhetoric often comes close to espousing a theology of works righteousness that says we are saved by our works (or someone else’s) and not by grace alone.  (And to be honest there a couple places where James flat out goes there… like his closing thoughts on prayer in James 5.)  And yet… I think our fear drives us away from an extremely important message: that our works are important… maybe even essential.  (The whole prophetic tradition is based, after all, on the idea of encouraging us to do what God created us to do… works.)  And why is the whole notion of good works even scary?  I mean why do we avoid a message that it’s good to do good works?

First off all let me lay one notion to bed right now (at least for myself).  I’m not about to think I’m God.  I’m not even close to falling prey to thinking I’m saving myself or anyone else for that matter.  Regardless of what James may or may not be prone to, I do not believe I’m securing salvation.  I’m not in the salvation business.  The work and knowledge of salvation is beyond me.  I am, maybe, into what Paul calls, “working out my (your) salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) And yes that text goes on to say that it is God at work in me…. But work is a part of it whether we like it or not.

Secondly, whatever we may say in the name of theology the Bible is absolutely FILLED with declarations by God, God’s prophets, and Jesus with the need for us to make choices – and good ones at that.  And those choices are usually about action and not thoughts.  Choose today who you will serve… pick up your cross and follow me… do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God… go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.

Choices that lead to actions… works.  Furthermore throughout the Bible there is an element of court room drama.  We are called to be witnesses – literally those who testify to the truth.  And the nature of good witness is that our actions speak louder than words… and this gets me to the heart of why I’m convicted we all need a bit more of James.  Because right now there is a lot of conversation about the fact that a lot of Christians are a lot better at talking about Christianity than we are at living it.  (That’s not new, not new for me to say it today nor really new to our current state of affairs.  That critique has been around for a very long time.)

Somewhere along the line we got content that we could behave in a certain way outside of church so long as we worshipped on Sunday and said all the right things.  Somewhere along the line we divided our lives into our creedal beliefs and our actions/works in the world.  And far too often they don’t measure up. And when I say that let me be clear: I’m not worried about the people who are trying to make them measure up and are struggling to do so, God knows and so do you – I fall short all the time.  I’m okay with that.  What I’m not really okay with, and don’t believe any of us should be, is the willful ignorance that we aren’t even trying to live coherently with our stated beliefs, that we aren’t even connecting the dots.  (And in case that sounded a bit righteous on my part let me be honest I fall into this category too.  I’m grateful for many good friends who continue to help me see my blind spots by the way they live their lives.  Their good works are helping me build greater perspective – thank you for being you… and more importantly for visibly living your beliefs as a constant reminder to me.)

I have a list of examples… I’m sure you can think up a whole list too so I’m don’t think I need to spend any time with that here.  But the one clear message I think we all really could use to spend time with is that we cannot divorce our actions from our beliefs or vice versa.  This is (regardless of the moments he transgress into full on work-righteousness) what I hear James really driving home to us.  What we really believe is communicated through what we do in the world whether we consciously think those things or not.  If we are recipients of grace and love and we believe in that, and believe in a God who is love, then our actions need to preach it.  But when our actions preach a different message – than at the heart of our lives regardless of what we wish to say of ourselves, we actually don’t believe in grace and love.*

An essential part of our life together, our discipleship of each other, needs to be holding each other accountable to living in the way of Jesus Christ.  Not “right thought.”  But making sure our lives serve as our Affirmation of Faith… and the creeds and confession we use liturgically simply put words to a reality we are already living.  When someone says to us, “What do you believe?”  Our answer should be, “What do you see happening around us?”  (I’ve heard that before now that I think of it… it was Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples on whether or not he was the “one to come”.)

Salvation.  I’m not really interested in it – at least in an eternal sense (whatever that is I figure it will take care of itself and it’s clearly a God-thing and not a me-thing).  I am, however, interested in an imminent and tangible sense of it, the sense in which it’s better understood as healing and wholeness.  And in that sense it is a work in progress.  It is something we cannot simply receive but have to work at, in our life and the life of the world.  Our lives cause ripples in creation, and so much the better when those ripples are good news to those who encounter them.  So thanks be to God for ripples of love… for working out salvation with a tad bit of fear and big dose of trembling… and for good works. Amen.

*For more thoughts on what our lives preach as opposed to the truth we claim to preach  go spend some time with the books and videos and blog posts of Peter Rollins who can express that better than I can and has greatly aided my thought here, though Kierkegaard blazed those trails in my mind long ago.  With regard to Peter Rollins if you want some guidance I can point you to some of my favorite examples of his work… though if you want to really get provoked along these lines just start here: http://peterrollins.net/?p=2864.)