Questions: Adam and Eve

In his song “Could it Be,” Michael Card sings:  ”Could it be that questions tell us more than answers ever do?”  I often think so.  So I am starting a new category as a place marker for me to pose questions that I think can lead to interesting reflections.

First up:  What if Adam had told Eve not to eat the fruit and she had anyway?

It might be interesting to speculate on the outcomes, but I think it’s more interesting to speculate on the possibility.  I do not think this would have been possible.  I think in some mystical way that was lost after the Fall Adam and Eve were truly one.    It is important in today’s secular climate for Christians to remember that God instituted marriage before the Fall.

This is one reason why I believe the Catholic rational for marriage as a sacrament is not convincing.  Marriage was instituted before there was a need for sacraments.  All things were sacred.  Though I am Protestant and accept only two sacraments, even if one accepts the other 4 sacraments that Catholics have (not including marriage), I could not see the rational for including marriage.

One could argue that the other six–Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Penance, Anointing the Sick and Holy Orders–were instituted  ”by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.”  I don’t believe but two of them were, but God instituted marriage before there was any need for any “means of grace.”  God designed us for marriage and for families.

Before there was the need for a Savior, before there was a need for the Church, before there was a purpose for sacraments, when God and mankind dwelt in harmony and all things were sacred, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Marriage between a man and a woman was part of God’s original design for creation.  Had there never been a Fall, there would be no Baptism, but marriage would remain.  The most would could argue is that it is an attempted recovery of God’s original plan, but I’m not sure I would find that convincing.

The Offering as Worship

A Temple Talk on stewardship I gave today at church.

My talk this morning is on giving as an act of worship.  These talks are structured around Mark Allen Powell’s wonderful book: Giving To God, the first chapter of which is “An Act of Worship.”  I can’t recommend this book highly enough, but I don’t want to recite to you what he said; I want to tell you about my reaction to the first chapter and my interaction with God through it.

I do want to give you an organizing quote, though.  Powell writes: “The Sunday offering is a worship event that provides us with the opportunity for expressing our love to God in the purest way imaginable, by giving up something that we value.”  I’ll come back to that.

Some years ago, [my wife] was reading “Our State” magazine when she saw a photo of the NC mountains in fall that she just loved.  It was a shot across rolling hills full of vibrant wild flowers.  I researched the photographer, found his web site, scoured through his prints and couldn’t find it.  I called him.  He had only recently taken the photograph, and had never made prints for sale.  He made, framed, matted and sold me a 20 x 24 print and shipped it.  I gave it to [my wife] for Christmas, and she has the first and maybe only one.  She delighted in the receiving and I in the giving.  Both our lives were enriched.

When I read that quote, “The Sunday offering is a worship event that provides us with the opportunity for expressing our love to God in the purest way imaginable, by giving up something that we value,” I thought about that picture and how excited I get about giving gifts to those I love, but I hate to give money.  I stopped to talk to God about that.

I told Him, “That’s just it God.  We put everything in terms of money today, and it’s so boring.  I wish I had something precious to give you like the Magi or that picture I gave Kerri, but I have nothing you need.” Now, don’t go call the paddy wagon and send for a straight-jacket.  I don’t see burning bushes or hear voices, but at that moment I sensed God telling me: “But, Bo…I don’t need your money either.”

We don’t give to God because He needs what we have.  All we have is already His, and He wants to give us more.  Sacrificial giving as an act of worship is one of the ways in which God allows us to exchange rusty, moth-infested rubbish for treasure in heaven. Now, please don’t misunderstand me.  When Jesus told us to store up treasure in heaven He was by no means suggesting that we could earn our way in.  Just as with our family and friends we do not give gifts to earn another’s love; likewise, we are not earning anything by giving to God.

The offering is not a free market exchange process in which we exchange labor for pay and pay for goods and services. It’s an organic, ecological process of growth.  We are like potted plants that the master gardener is preparing for a special and beautiful place in a new creation He is planting, and giving as an act of worship is part of the process by which God nourishes and feeds us so that we may grow into a plant ready to be taken from the pot and deeply rooted in good soil.

In the tangible realm we are still part of the old decaying creation.  The blessings God has given us in this world are indeed good and useful for life, and love and re-creation, and we should offer thanks for them, but unless we want to become root bound in this pot of flesh we must cease clinging to those things which are impermanent and exchange them for permanent things.

We give gifts to our children that are appropriate to their maturity.  It is in the act of giving to God in worship that He matures us and enables us to put away childish things so that we can receive even greater things.  It’s as if He is continually taking us from smaller pots and putting us in larger ones.  The seed He planted in baptism He nurtures and cultivates and nourishes in worship, all of worship from thanksgiving and confession, praying and listening, eating and drinking, giving and serving.

When we cheerfully and freely give back to God what He has first given to us we are telling Him “I get it!”  It’s a humbling, joyful and hungering process.  It’s humbling because we first have to understand that we don’t deserve any of it, not even the most simple, essential gifts necessary to sustain physical life.  It’s joyful because once we understand that we deserve none of it we don’t have to struggle to earn any of it, because we know we can’t, and we don’t have to fight to keep any of it because…we know we can’t.  It’s hungering because once we’ve had a taste of God’s grace we want more, and we want it fully, in greater measure; we humbly and joyfully thirst for it like a deer panting for water.

In giving we grow to want the things we cannot earn but which we can keep, eternally.  We give to God not because we have anything He needs but because He has everything that we will ever need, in this world and the world to come. In giving we become imitators of Christ.  It is precisely through imitation that children learn and grow.  When we do not freely and cheerfully give we are not keeping anything from God; we are keeping God’s grace from fully maturing in ourselves.

And yet, we all know that the most precious gifts we have to offer are not tangible.  Imagine a relationship in which we never gave those we love our attention, approval, or affection.  But, being the frail creatures of the tangible world of sense that we are, when we freely and joyfully give tangible gifts to one another—be it a photograph, a hug or love note—we are able, by doing so, to also give them intangible gifts.

While the offering is not a sacrament it does share this in common with them: The offering is one of the worship events in which the tangible intersects with the intangible. In giving our tangible gifts to God as an act of worship we open ourselves to receive the intangible gifts of His grace and love, and in doing so we grow, we are transformed more and more into His likeness until we are ready to be taken from our pots and planted in a garden that will glorify Him.  Thanks be to Him to whom all glory is due, now and forever.  Amen.

Maher and Persecution

Bill Maher recently said: “I’d like to tip off law enforcement to an even larger child-abusing religious cult. Its leader also has a compound, and this guy not only operates outside the bounds of the law, but he used to be a Nazi and he wears funny hats.”

Of course the Catholic church is protesting these comments, and they probably should, just not too strongly or vehemently. I’ve heard and read several comments that we should imagine if he had said such derogatory things about a particular race or another religion, like Muslims. Many of them noted that Christians are the only targets left that it’s OK to attack.

That may be true, but we’re also the only group of people whose Leader told us not only to expected it but that we were blessed when it happens, and He also told us how to handle it.

Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

John 15:20, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”

First Corinthians 4: 12-13, “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly . Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.”

Second Corinthians 4:8-10, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”

Second Timothy 3: 12-14, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil man and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and what you have become convinced, because you know those from whom you learned it.”

In Second Thessalonians, Paul says that he boast to all the other churches about the perseverance and faith of the Thessalonians in all the persecutions and trials they had been enduring. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus explains that the seed that fell on rocky places represents the one who hears the word and receives it with joy, but lacking root, when trouble or persecution comes he quickly falls away.

Persecution is to be expected. People know they can get away with it with Christians, not just because we are acceptable targets, but they also know we’re not going to threaten to kill the person saying it. In fact, we’re not going to put up much protest at all. It’s really only when they try to keep us from the public square that we protest. As long as you don’t try to hinder our voice proclaiming the Word, for the most part, with some exceptions, we’ll take all the insults you throw at us and bless you.

I hope the Catholic church doesn’t overreact.

Seasons in the Son: Why I Am Lutheran IV

I am writing this on the eve of spring; as the northern hemisphere transits from the season of death to the season of rebirth, so too the Church transits from the season of Lent to the season of Easter. Because Easter is dated on the lunar calendar used to calculate Passover, we do not always have Easter so close to the start of spring, so it is a perfect time to write about the importance of seasons to the Christian life.

Recently I attended a men’s conference at a local church because one of the seminars offered was “Mentoring Youth.” Prior to the seminars we had a worship service in the style of that church. I am no stranger to their style of worship, and it is authentic worship of our Triune God by people who genuinely love our Lord Jesus Christ; however, my personal worship experience was jarred by the constant use of the exclamation ‘alleluia.’

Not all churches follow the practice of “burying the alleluia” during Lent, and the Sundays in Lent, like all Sundays generally, are, in a very real sense, “little Easters;” however, I have always felt that such practices heighten the awareness of the important distinctions of our church seasons. I like them, and the Lutheran church’s incorporation of the seasons of the church year—and the various liturgical practices connected to them—into its worship has a strong appeal to me.

Unless one lives in Camelot where “the climate must be perfect all the year,” we all experience temperate seasons as well as more symbolic seasons of life like the season of youth or the season of grief. Seasons of all sorts (even sports seasons!) help to regulate our lives. Church seasons reflect this natural aspect of being part of creation, and they point us to the God of seasons. They assure us that the Lord of creation is also the Lord of time, the Lord of transition, the Lord of change.

Being attuned to the changing seasons of the Church is as important as being attuned to the changing seasons of nature or of life. Rather than being quaint or archaic, seasonal practices can enrich our personal prayer and our corporate worship and also help us develop spiritual discipline by nurturing spiritual structures.

Jesus lived and suffered and rejoiced in all ways common to all people, so it is fitting and instructive that our Church seasons reflect the seasons of His life. Though extraordinary in every way, we sometimes forget He even lived quite a bit of His life in “ordinary time.” (Kathleen Norris wrote a brief and wonderful book called The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work” that properly connects “ordinary time” to worship.)

Christ is found in the rhythms and patterns of life. In fact, he reconciles them as well as us for He “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20)

Now that it’s Easter, can I get an alleluia?

Why I Am Lutheran—Part I: Liturgy

I’ve never agreed with the statement that familiarity breeds contempt. I have found that all too often familiarity breeds inattention, not apathy or callousness so much as forgetful neglect. Unfortunately, we humans all too often take for granted that which is most precious and familiar to us.

And it’s not just “stuff” we do that with, is it? We do it with practices, traditions, rituals and even beliefs. We get so familiar with them that we stop noticing. And then a child asks “Is God real?”, or a friend asks “Why is God silent in my grief?”, or a neighbor asks “Why are you Lutheran?” In order to follow Peter’s injunction to “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15) we are forced to notice again that which we ceased truly seeing.

I wasn’t raised Lutheran. I chose Lutheranism after first studying Reformation history in graduate school and then actually worshiping at a Lutheran church, so I was forced to think through many of those aspects of our faith traditions that we tend to take for granted. As we begin this new church year, I thought I would begin an informal series on why I am Lutheran, both as a way of helping me to refresh my own faith journey and, hopefully, as a way to help others revisit and re-encounter their own.

From the title, it may look like I have a systematic plan for this series, but in reality I chose this title after I saw where my thoughts were going, and I have no idea what aspect I may focus on next. Other Lutherans may have different priorities and preferences, but liturgical worship was one of the most powerful factors that drew me towards Lutheranism.

As Jesus taught, the only “right” way to worship God is “in Spirit and Truth,” (John 4:24) so I don’t want to imply that liturgical worship is the One True worship. There are liturgical churches, like the Roman Catholic, where I do not feel I could worship God “in Truth” because of profound doctrinal differences. I do not think liturgical worship is—in and of itself—somehow superior; however, I do feel it has within its form the potential to be more rich, connected and elemental than more modern forms of worship.

Too often those who are unfamiliar with it argue that liturgical worship is dead or canned or overly ritualistic or boring. As Simon Chan, in Liturgical Theology, argues, these “concerns should not be dismissed lightly, as [they] grew out of the deeply spiritual sense that the Spirit can not be domesticated.” (126) However, any worship that is not “in Spirit and Truth” is dead, period.

Before I even knew it, I was drawn to liturgical worship by its “work.” In The Church’s Liturgy, Michael Kunzler explains that in its profane origins “Literally translated ‘liturgy’ means ‘work of the people/ for the people’.” However, “on account of the unique character of Christian worship people at first… avoided a general concept for it. When ‘liturgy’ was adopted for it, it was not however forgotten… that liturgy first of all is the work of God, who brings about salvation in the world through Christ in the Holy Spirit.” (13)

There are actually two senses in which the term liturgy is commonly used, and this sometimes causes confusion. In the more specific and formal sense, it is restricted to the Holy Eucharist. When an Eastern Orthodox Christian speaks of the liturgy he is most likely referring only to the Eucharist Service, what Roman Catholics refer to as the Sacrifice of the Mass, and what Lutherans and other Protestants might call The Great Thanksgiving.

On the other hand, especially in Protestant churches, “liturgy often means the whole complex of official services, all the rites, ceremonies, prayers, and sacraments of the Church, as opposed to private devotions. In this sense we speak of the arrangement of all these services in certain set forms, used officially by any local church, as the liturgy of that church. So a service of evening prayer is also part of the liturgy.”

The Lutheran church uses both in theologically meaningful ways. Thus, in the more formal sense, the liturgy refers to the part of our service devoted to communion and is the work of Christ alone on the cross. However, the liturgy is also “the work of the people,” not as a means of grace but as a “duty and delight,” in a worship and thanksgiving response to the work of God through Christ.

If a Lutheran service often feels like a lot of work it is and should be. Too often we think of work as either a bothersome chore or a theologically dirty word. In the sense of the work of worship and praise as a response to God’s grace, it’s neither. We are, after all, God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” (Eph 2:10)

Properly done, liturgical worship is embodied worship. As we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation, it is appropriate to see worship as an act which involves more than our minds and spirits. It is an offering of our “bod[ies] as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God,” which is our “spiritual worship.” (Rom 12:1) It engages our bodies and senses as well as our thoughts, words and feelings.

We truly are like children (in all ways both good and bad). As any teacher will tell you, if you engage children’s bodies and senses they’ll learn more than if they just sat there and listened. Learning is work, so is worship. School is full of ritual, so is worship, even in non-liturgical worship. The best way to keep living ritual from becoming dead rote is to engage the whole person in the work of worship and thanksgiving that “is indeed right and salutary” in response to the work of God through Christ Jesus.

By changing the theology without discarding the ancient and common mode of corporate worship, Lutheranism allows me to most closely approach in this life the perfect worship in Spirit and Truth that I will only truly be capable of in the next.

Note: While I differ from Catholics substantially, many of them, like Merton, Nouwen, and Neuhaus, have had a profound influence upon my spiritual development. One way I do not differ is in my love of liturgical worship. Read “…But Isn’t Liturgical Worship Dead” to see a Catholic brother’s (David Bennett) viewpoint on this topic.

The Path of Worship

Plateaued Churches

Recently I read a heated discussion about Reviving a Plateaued Church Without Ticking People Off stirred up by an article by Rick Warren in which he writes:

“If your church has been plateaued for six months, it might take six months to get it going again. If it’s been plateaued a year, it might take a year. If it’s been plateaued for 20 years, you’ve got to set in for the duration! I’m saying some people are going to have to die or leave. Moses had to wander around the desert for 40 years while God killed off a million people before he let them go into the Promised Land. That may be brutally blunt, but it’s true. There may be people in your church who love God sincerely, but who will never, ever change.”

I think it’s important to ask: “What defines a plateau? Who gets to decide that a particular church has plateaued?”ť Is the pastor alone in his view that a church has plateaued? Is he defining the plateau simply in terms of numbers? If you read the whole article, it seems Warren is talking only numbers, especially since the article is adapted from the Rick Warren resource “How to break through the 200-300 attendance barrier.”

I imagine a lot of the feedback on this quote comes from Christians in cities. I live in a large rural farming area. There will never be huge numbers at the churches out here, but the people still need to worship God. Are they worshiping God in Spirit and Truth? Do they seek His kingdom first? Are they helping the weak, serving the poor and lifting the fallen? Are they seeking to put everything in their lives under the Lordship of Christ? Are they fulfilling the Great Commission?

If the answer to these questions is yes then the numbers are irrelevant, but these issues aren’t even discussed by Warren. He talks about three things for the pastor to do when his church has plateaued: 1) Realize it will take time. 2) Love everyone but move with the movers, and 3) Be prepared for conflict. It may be telling that the only time he mentions prayer is in step one when he advises pastors to pray for patience.

Equally telling is that the “movers” he refers to are the “E. F. Huttens” of a particular church. There is one and only one real Mover of the Church. He doesn’t mention praying for the Spirit to do the moving. If the Holy Spirit isn’t doing the moving then it’s best to sit still. The fact that Warren believes that “some people are going to have to die or leave,” indicates, to me at least, that he sees church growth as something to be accomplished by people and not the Spirit.

The transformation of God’s people is one of the primary purposes for which the Spirit was sent into the world. To argue that people who “love God sincerely” (Christians specifically for who else truly loves God?) and who have received the Spirit (unlike the wandering Israelites) as all Christians have “will never, ever, change” and they “are going to have to die or leave” before any change can take place is bad theology indeed!

Numbers can, if fact, mean exactly what the quote implies is true of churches without numerical growth. Again: “There may be people in your church who love God sincerely, but who will never, ever change.” First, as I argued above, if you truly love God, there will be change, transformation. One can not come into the presence of God with a humble and broken heart and not be changed. Second, if the church is growing because of “market”ť forces rather than the genuine transformative and reviving work of the Holy Spirit then people may be coming just so they don’t have to change. A church that’s changing on the outside but not on the inside is worse than one not changing at all for it leads even more people into a stale, shallow, nominal understanding of our Lord.

I am not opposed to large para-churches. After all, the first church added 3000 members the first day, but that was after a sermon calling them to repent and in the face of sure persecution. The Founder of that church had just been executed a few months prior and the preacher was a mere fisherman. How many people who decide to go to churches with a mime ministry, contemporary music and plasma TVs would choose to join that first church? If all, great—I don’t want to minimize any of those ministries–but if not then one has to question if that “growing,” rather than plateaued, church is not really, in fact, in a downward spiral.

I’m Reformed through and through, but one of the unfortunate effects of the Reformation is that we now have dozens of churches per square mile competing with one another for members using models of competition borrowed from economics and entertainment. If a church’s numbers come from people who want church without transformation, sacrifice and a willingness to suffer and that has been facilitated by a staff focused on numerical growth then that church is in a state far worse than a plateau.

If the church is growing in numbers but the members aren’t growing in Christ then one has to question if the numerical growth is a result of the Spirit’s work. Evangelism and outreach are extremely important, but they can only truly be accomplished by those equipped by growth in Christ. The only thing some of the people at large, hip, numerically thriving churches would be willing to change is the church they attend.

My last problem with the quote is it says a plateau can be as short as six months. There’s no way one can determine that a church has plateaued in that span. That church may be in a period of preparation, like Jesus in the wilderness or Paul in Antioch or the disciples prior to Pentecost. If one is quick to judge a six month period of no change (read: numerical growth) as a plateau then his definition of plateau is probably seriously flawed.