Thursday, October 4, 2007

Step By Step: A Statement Of Faith

Stepping off the tram,
my three year old son, Seth, and I
place our feet
on the cobblestones of the old city square.
We stand surrounded by the weathered beauty
of the past thousand eastern European years,
and shadowed by the two towers
of a beautiful twelfth century cathedral
dedicated by St. Francis of Assisi,
who had a penchant for hugging diseased people.

Seth and I begin our walk across the square.

As I hear the click of my steps
on the aged rock surface,
I hear the contrast of my son’s shuffling,
forced by the awkwardness
of two rigid leg braces clashing against each other.
Suddenly I notice Indida, the ten year old Roma girl
who, in good Gypsy tradition,
makes a nuisance of herself
begging from people as they get on and off the trams.
She is standing at the base
of the stairs that ascend
to the vegetable market,
and I begin to plot my course so that she won’t see me.
Sure, friends have told me
that unless she gets a certain amount of money for begging,
her father will beat her at the end of the day.

But that’s not my responsibility.

After all, what can I do
about anything that happens
in a dysfunctional Roma family?
As I make my way past Indida,
the slow pace of my son becomes a real liability.
I worry that the shuffling of his brace-laden feet
will broadcast our presence to her.

Finally, the inevitable happens!

Indida looks over in our direction,
and she starts running toward us.
Now I will have to push her away
when she tries to put her hands on me,
for she knows
Americans are particularly upset
by strangers touching them.
I know she will follow us
until we give her the money she wants.
Just before she gets to Seth and me,
she stops abruptly,
stares directly at Seth’s braces,
and then does the most unexpected thing.
Indida reaches into her pockets,
takes out all the money she has,
and with outstretched hands
offers it all to me.
Looking at Indida’s outstretched hands
revealing her sacrificial offering,
I am overwhelmed
by her spontaneous generosity.
I know what this gift will cost her,
and I no longer see a pesky Roma child.
I am looking at a living picture
of God’s grace
being offered to me
in the outstretched hands of Jesus on the cross.
Quickly, I convey to her my deep appreciation
for her thoughtfulness,
and guide her hands
holding her money back to her pockets.
Her eyes brighten
and she wears the first smile
I have ever seen on her face.
After buying her some ice cream,
Seth and I continue on,
making our way slowly up the steps
to the market.

Now, everything is new!

I am not passing a nuisance to be avoided,
but a light that has scattered my darkness.
My son is no longer burdened
with a handicap that slows him down,
or a father without understanding.
Now I see Seth more clearly than ever
a wonder of God,
precious and deserving
of the best and most I can give him.
Using Indida,
God has reminded me of God’s attitude toward me,
and God’s penchant for hugging diseased people.
God has shown me again
that God’s grace is not limited
to my expectations.
Grace surprises us
when we least expect it.
God conveys God’s gifts to us
using the most unlikely people
in the most unlikely places
at the most unlikely times.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Our Real Moral Crisis

Recently I was asked what I consider to be the major moral issues facing Christians today. There are many possible ways to answer this question: justice issues, sexual issues, family issues, and the list goes on. But it seemed to me that all these take their place under one over-arching moral crisis, and that is a dual natured crisis of authenticity and credibility. To say this in more theological language, we Christians must become more truly Christ-like if we really want the world around us to take seriously the Gospel we proclaim, or stated even more obviously, we must “practice what we preach.”
Especially in the United States and Europe, there seems to be a kind of Christianity that emphasizes a nebulous belief in some amorphous divine force that is separated from the nuts and bolts of how we actually live our lives. This produces people who use the name Christian in their understanding of who they are, but then live life essentially the same as anyone else in the world. Diettrich Bonhoeffer used the term “cheap grace” to describe this type of thinking, but he had another term that described it even better --- the “church of the World.” This kind of “church” is opposed to the “church of the Word,” and seeks to make itself righteous by offering grace without repentance, proclaiming reconciliation without the Cross, and celebrating hope without holiness.
Prominent pollster George Barna has found that those who claim to be evangelical Christians show no appreciable difference from non-Christians in how they live. They are just as likely, and in some cases more likely, to engage in sinful or questionable behaviour as any non-Christian. If this is true, how can we ever expect those who are not yet believers to have any reason to take seriously the message of Christ’s transforming love expressed in the Cross and the Resurrection? Where’s the evidence in our own lives? Where’s the passion for following Christ and being His faithful disciples?
If we as Christians are to have any hope of countering and overcoming the power of the radical Islamists, we must demonstrate a greater passion and a greater desire than they do to sacrifice our lives for God’s purposes. In our case, our passion and sacrifice as Christ-like people are expressed in awesome acts of love and service for others, even for the Islamists themselves. The world sees the power of the Islamists’ sacrificial dying and cowers in terror. The power of the Christian’s sacrificial living results not in terror, but in peace, hope, and transformation through Christ.
I believe as Christians we must become truly authentic in our passion for God in our life together. This is more than fellowship, this is the healing baptismal spring of koinonia, where faith is shared honestly, deep relationships are formed, and growth in Christ is experienced together according to the truth of the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures joyfully teach that all Christians are priests. As such, Christ calls us to set aside our own interests and to serve others. In doing this, God weaves us into a gift-giving, gift-receiving community, displaying the splendors of God’s grace to the world. Our life together as brothers and sisters in Christ, then, is more than a casual association for our social convenience. It is the very means by which God empowers us for living out our baptism into Christ. Only when the world sees this transformed reality will they listen to the Message we proclaim.


Monday, August 6, 2007

Gray's Deeply Pernicious Heresy

While I generally respect Joan Gray the current Moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA, the type of thinking she expressed in her editorial "A Deeply Pernicious Heresy" (see, Saturday, August 4th edition) is a frightenly excellent example of the kind of thinking that has made such a mess of the PCUSA. She divides belief in Christ from obedience to Christ, resulting in a view of salvation and church membership as consisting of only certain creedal or mental affirmations. In this way, it is possible to simply believe in Jesus without actually giving one's life to Jesus.
This is the old "heresy" that Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace," which allows people to believe they are okay with God just because the have the right belief. Actually following Christ as a disciple is then divorced from belief, allowing one to live life in actual rebellion against God while holding to "right beliefs." How many churches would admit a person to membership who holds only "right belief" in Jesus while practicing pedophilia, or racism, or drug-dealing, or human trafficking? Would anyone say it is being heretical and unfair to insist that a person's life line up enough with their confession of Christ that they seek to eliminate these practices from their lives?
Yes, we should be compassionate and seek to offer such persons the promise of transformation through the grace of Christ, but few if any would say that simple cognitive affirmation of a few certain beliefs is actual Christian discipleship. This is why the same Paul that Joan Gray appeals to in her editorial instructs the Corinthian church to expell from their fellowship anyone who is "sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler." (I Corinthians 5:11) Even these few behaviours mentioned here would have a radical effect upon the PCUSA if we took them all seriously as reflections of our profession of faith in Christ.
I am not saying we become a legalistic legion in our judgements toward one another. Joan Gray is rightfully warning against this. However, it is critical that we not divorce our lives from our profession of faith. The scriptures do not divide life practice from faith, which according to Paul is belief in our hearts more than our minds (Romans 10:9-10). Even the great reformers Luther and Calvin insisted both that salvation is by faith alone in Christ and this same faith must be evidenced by the good works that follow. Neither reformer could be accused of adding another condition for salvation besides faith in Christ, but their understanding of faith is much more life encompassing than mere mental assent. As Luther said, faith is a complete trusting of one's whole life to God, or more typical of his terminology, "You cast yourself entirely upon the Word."
I think that if Joan Gray and I were having a discussion with each other at the local Starbucks, we would probably find a lot of friendly agreement as we talked through our differing points. But the message of her editorial as it stands alone right now is itself "a deeply pernicious heresy."


Thursday, July 12, 2007


I was happy to read in Monday’s (July 9, 2007) Presbyweb about my very good friend, Brett McMichael, and the prospect that he may be nearing an end to his search to find a suitable kidney donor. (See Missionary's bid to find kidney may be near end) However, I want to elaborate on few things that are just touched upon in the article. While many of our missionaries have done extraordinary work, I believe Brett is an example of mission work that truly fulfills what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5:16, “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

My family and I had the privilege of getting to know Brett in 2001 when we were living in Zagreb, Croatia. At first, we were impressed with a man possessed of vision and passion for bringing healing to children in the hospitals of Croatia. But as we got to know more about Brett and his work, it became clear that he is one of those rare individuals who are able to transform reality with their dreams.

The first miracle we became aware of regarding Brett’s work is the effect he has had on Croatian hospitals. He has by his own resolve and risk-taking transformed the approach of Croatian hospitals in how they treat children and how they relate to parents. Before Brett, treatment for children was very impersonal and parents were not permitted to stay with their children in hospitals. Through Brett’s influence and example, he developed and inspired a new atmosphere of personal involvement and interactive treatment for children. He also educated hospital leaders to welcome and encourage parents to stay with their children.

It is important to emphasize that Brett’s work and influence, while centered in Osijek and Zagreb, was a nationwide influence. He was invited to train and assist hospital caregivers throughout all the major medical centers of Croatia. He became one of the very few people who could walk into most any hospital in Croatia and be accepted by the staff as a respected colleague and peer. My wife, Jackie, spent some time working with Brett in Zagreb, and she observed firsthand the complete trust and respect that the doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators placed in Brett and his opinions.

Brett has been the consummate missionary in making sure that his work became multiplied far beyond himself. He was able to leave Croatia having developed entire programs led by Croatians and supported by Croatian society. Perhaps the most renowned of these programs in Croatia is the development of camps for children who have various challenges. Brett started these in 2001. Since then, he has developed camps for children with cancer, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, and others. This is doubly incredible when you consider that this is in a culture where parents are extremely protective of their ailing children, and simply did not let them go off with other people, even if they are trained professionals. Brett overcame this cultural barrier. Since the success of that first camp in 2001, these camps have become a national institution, with involvement and support from all sectors of Croatian society: businesses, entertainers, churches, and politicians.
(Photo of Fuzine, a retreat center in the Croatian Alps, where Brett's camps take place)

When I was visiting Zagreb in the summer of 2006, some mutual friends of Brett and mine told me a most amazing story of how much Croatians support Brett’s work. It seems that in 2004, the largest bank in Croatia had wanted to give a special gift to a humanitarian work that has been most significant in its impact on Croatian society. They chose the group Brett had gathered for putting together the camps for children with illnesses. This gift was worth well into the six figure range in US dollars. And as if this wasn’t amazing enough, in 2005 the same bank, the Croatian national television network, and the Zagreb Dinamo (a major European soccer team) worked together to do a television reality series about men trying out to make a soccer team that would play the Dinamo in a nationally televised game. The proceeds from the game were to go to support the work of Brett McMichael’s summer camps for ailing children.

While all this is impressive, it is important to remember that Brett’s work has had a positive effect on Croatia far beyond just changing how hospitals approach the treatment of children and providing a cause celeb for businesses and entertainers. This has affected a whole society. The change in attitudes in medical circles has been one of many strands of transformation for a country that has struggled to free itself of a communistic mentality in governing, has suffered incredibly to fight a war of independence from the former Yugoslavia, and has courageously fought corruption in its economics and politics.

Sure, Brett did not do this by himself, but he did what all good missionaries should do --- contribute to the overall good and progress of the people he is working with. There is no doubt whatsoever that Croatia is a far better country with a far better approach to treating sick and suffering children because of who Brett McMichael is, what Brett McMichael has done, and the Lord who Brett McMichael so faithfully serves.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Couple Of Concerns About The EPC

As we enter the latest round of churches leaving the PCUSA, it seems the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (or in alphabet soup terms, EPC) is the green pasture of choice for those fleeing the soul-sucking skirmishes of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Now, I like the EPC. There are many great congregations in the EPC. In fact, that old standard line is true for me when I say that some of my best friends are members and ministers in the EPC. But (and you all knew there had to be a big “but” here somewhere), I’m not so sure that the EPC is necessarily a better and less problematic place to be than the PCUSA.

Oh sure, it sounds absolutely delirious to think that I could go to a typical presbytery meeting and not have to endure the proclamation and “esteem-ation” of some amorphous deity that oozes from our sentimental pores and that craves the sacrifice of revealed Truth at the altar of left-over Marxist views of justice and developmentally-stunted demands for tolerance “or else.” And of course I feel the siren call of being in a denomination that really does presume the basic, essential, and universally held beliefs regarding Jesus Christ as the Son of God who lived among us, was God’s sacrifice for our sins, and was raised from the dead so we may live the life of God in this world through trust in Him, obedience to the Word, and being empowered by the Holy Spirit. Such basic things can become powerful enticements after wandering in the biblical and theological wastelands of the PCUSA.

However (which is more erudite terminology for a big “but”), despite my occasional day dreams about frolicking in the daisy-filled fields of the EPC, there are two things (actually, three things, but I’ll only address two here) that have kept my dreams just dreams, and have made me reluctant to seek refuge with these evangelical kin.

The first issue is the lack of growth in the EPC. Now, I know no one from the PCUSA (especially me) has any right to critique any church body on a lack of growth, but I can tell you lots of reasons why the PCUSA has members fleeing in terror. But (and this is a really big “but”) the EPC has “evangelical” written right in their name, for crying out loud. So what gives with the lack of substantial growth?

In 1981 or so, when the EPC started (as I understand or misunderstand it, these were mainly old United Presbyterian congregations separating over the issue of the ordination of women, e.g. Kenyon case et al ignotus res), there were around 110 congregations with about 60,000 members throughout the USA “and Argentina” (I’m not sure why they always mention Argentina). After 25 years, they had increased to around 160 congregations and 70,000. I’m glad they at least grew, but I would expect a thoroughly evangelical denomination that had cast off some of the regulatory restraints of an overbearing denominational structure to grow a lot more than this.

Friends of mine in the EPC tell me that they have had their own institutional roadblocks to new church development and reaching out. There have been some theological controversies (even in the EPC) that have taken energy away from some overall visioning for the denomination. Still, this doesn’t really explain it for me. The Presbyterian Church in America also started with a number under 100,000 members in the 1980’s, and the PCA is now over 350,000 and adding 20 to 30 thousand per year. They too have had to work on improving their approach to new church development, and they too have had to deal with some mission-distracting theological controversies, but they still managed to keep on track with reaching new people with the Gospel. If it wasn’t for those who are fleeing the PCUSA, there wouldn’t be any real prospect of growth for the EPC.

The second issue is that while the EPC is more congregationally oriented and supportive, it still has a “gate-keeping” mentality and effect in the leadership and structures of the EPC presbyteries and the General Assembly. I’m not sure why this is so, unless it follows from the fact that those who founded the EPC brought with them the restraining and regulatory mindset of the PCUSA. A friend of mine was forced to start a new congregation outside of the jurisdiction of an EPC presbytery due to the political and regulatory hoops he was facing as an EPC minister. His new congregation quickly zoomed to over 3000 members involved in effective discipling structures and innovative missional outreach. (Ironically, he is now a PCUSA minister. Long story.)

I hope the influx of new congregations in the EPC will yield a new openness to process and mission. I know many of the PCUSA congregations who are switching are looking forward to being able to do innovative mission with presbytery structures and leadership that encourage Spirit-led, biblically-obedient risk and innovation. Maybe this is the way God is opening up the EPC leadership to something new and wonderful that God wants to do with them. I certainly hope this is the case. Otherwise, the former PCUSA congregations may find themselves bound up by the yoke of a new Pharoah in a new Egypt rather than the inspiring visionary leadership of a fiery Joshua in a new Promised Land.

Finally (and yes, there is at long last a “finally”), let me make clear again that I respect and admire the EPC, pray for the EPC, and if God so leads me in the future I may even end up with the EPC. (It could happen, though I’d probably go Orthodox before going EPC.) However, I wonder if the frustrations that we have with the PCUSA are more universal than we realize. Maybe our frustrations with the PCUSA are really frustrations shared by all Christians in all denominations with the very existence of denominations. Maybe denominations are not only anachronistic entities that no longer serve the mission interests of the faithful Christians within them, but maybe they are actually being eliminated by God. Maybe those who are wanting to serve God with energy, imagination, intelligence, and love are not supposed to be comfortable in a denomination, just like we are not supposed to feel comfortable in a old dirty rundown house that has become unlivable, unsalvageable, and inhospitable. That is something we’ll explore in my next blog (whenever that happens).


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Reaching Our Communities For Christ

I am involved with a venture in Cedar Rapids called "Serve The City." This has been and still is a rather exciting work among around 40 churches of various denominations and fellowships geared to reaching this community through three primary emphases: prayer, care, and share. The kernel of the concept comes from cooperative interchurch outreach ventures in places like Little Rock, AR; Cochella Valley, CA; and El Paso, TX. We spend about a year enlisting people to pray for their families and neighbors, the second year we do tangible actions to demonstrate our care for our families and neighbors, and the third year we work together to provide meaningful and relevant services to our communities. The idea is to reach out to our communities with love in demonstrative ways so that we build credibility. With this credibility, we hope to utilize these connections with our communities as bridges to share the Good News of Jesus with those who do not yet know Him as their Lord and Saviour.
Now, as my own congregation has participated in this endeavor, I have noticed a correlation between the effectiveness of the congregation in reaching out with the kind of leadership each church experiences. This may be one of those "duh" observations, but this cooperative venture has produced some anecdoctal evidence for much of what we read about in today's "missional" literature. So, here are some of my thoughts on what makes ministers and congregations more effective in reaching their communities with the Gospel.
Now, obviously the lead pastor is an important catalyst for leading, teaching, and inspiring a group of believers in living out the Gospel. Yet, effective pastoral leadership must come out of a passion to share an experience of God’s grace in Jesus Christ with as many people as effectively as possible. Any motivation less than this in the pastor will undermine and hamper the efforts of even the best equipped and motivated members of a church body.
So, my first step for leading a congregation in reaching the community is to make sure I am acting and leading from my own place of seeking the grace and presence of God. I must be able to speak of vision and strategy out of my own sense of need for Spirit and Truth, and my own experience of receiving these as undeserved gifts through walking with Jesus. Otherwise, we would end up promoting just ourselves and seeking our own glory rather than acting out of a heart for inviting lost people into the kingdom of God.
Nevertheless, as crucial as good, authentic leadership is for a congregation, reaching our community with the Gospel grows out of our courage and creativity as a covenant body of disciples who care and support one another in service to God. As Mark Brewer of Bel Air Presbyterian Church is fond of saying, "It is hard to lead if no one is following." Who and how we reach in the various communities will depend on the calls that God gives to those in our congregations. We must be reaching those whom God wants our particular church to reach, and God will provide individuals and groups among us with the right passions and the proper gifts for reaching particular peoples (as long as we pray, listen to God’s Word, and follow the Spirit).
Obviously, God wants all people to be reached, but it is God who reaches all people through calling disciples to be passionate about reaching particular groups of people. A recovering and redeemed alcoholic may be gifted to reach fellow alcoholics, or a former gang member may sense an affinity with those lost in that lifestyle, but we don't expect each member of our churches to reach out and relate to everyone with equal effectiveness.
This means ministry that is truly missional and led by the Spirit emerges out of a covenant life together. So each disciple will find and develop with one or more others a team for doing a project or activity that connects with their target group in an engaging and relevant way. Maybe for college students, the team would offer a college-oriented Alpha course in a popular coffee bar. A group called to address poverty issues may form a cooperative to work with poor residents to refurbish their homes, or even have a group from the church take up residence in a low income neighborhood to have a missionary presence (with a satellite worship service there as well).
My role as a missional pastor is to make sure the church body I am leading is providing the structures for equipping people in their ministries. This involves making sure the overseeing elders are enabling and encouraging the leaders of the various ministries under their care. It also means developing an atmosphere of imagination and risk-taking that will give people the sense of courage and freedom to attempt whatever God is calling them to do, while at the same time providing the nurturing structures of accountability that enable people to discern their call in light of the Scriptures, the guidance of the Spirit, and the wisdom of fellow disciples.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Is There An Exodus From The PCUSA, And How Does One Recognize It?

I hear from many fellow evangelicals and read in many articles and letters that a major exodus has began, which will result in many congregations leaving the Presbyterian Church USA. Most of those expressing this opinion see most of these departing congregations becoming part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church denomination. Obviously, this is certainly true to some extent, especially with the New Wineskin congregations who are joining the EPC. And the rationale for leaving provided by some, especially Robert Gagnon, has been especially sobering and persuasive. However, I am not sure if the exodus is as large and as potent as what some are saying.
Oh sure, it is certainly noteworthy when Kirk of the Hills in Tulsa or Memorial Park in Pittsburgh recuse themeselves to the EPC, and such moves certainly gain the attention of all of us who call ourselves evangelical. But at this point, I do not see the grand exodus or realignment that I hear others talking about. No offense intended to churches like Kirk of the Hills, but no church that really carries the weight of evangelical leadership in the PCUSA has indicated that it is leaving. No such church, like Peachtree in Atlanta, Menlo Park in California, First in Colorado Springs, Bel Air in the LA area, or University Place in Seattle, has given the slightest indication that they are seriously entertaining a change of denominational affiliation. Plus, no major evangelical voice has announced his or her "exodus." We have not heard (up to this point) the names of Joe Rightmeyer, Vic Pentz, Mark Brewer, Andrew Purves, Jerry Andrews, Roberta Hestenes, Mary Holder Naegeli, Jim Berkeley, Bill Young, or even Parker Williamson mentioned in any list of those who are seeking refuge by opting out of the PCUSA.
A few weeks ago, I was in a conversation with a friend who is pastor of a PCUSA church in NW Washington state. He is part of a covenant group of pastors from throughout the USA who gather together periodically for fellowship, encouragement, education, and accountability. Out of 12 pastors in his group, three were in churches leaving the PCUSA for the EPC. A significant number --- Yes! But indications of a mass exodus starting --- I'm not so sure.
At this point, it SEEMS TO ME that most of us evangelicals are staying the course in the PCUSA, and it SEEMS TO ME that this perserverance by the evangelicals will yet yield a quite orthodox and missional future for the PCUSA. Oh yes, I think some of the more militant liberals in this ecclesiastical community smell evangelical blood and are making plans for a victory feast as we hear of a theologically conservative church here and there leaving for the EPC. But sometimes the facts do not fit what we are sensing or hearing, and the facts (at this time) overwhelmingly support the continuance and growth of a strong and vital evangelical presence in the PCUSA.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Let The Blogs Begin

I am just entering the blogosphere, so I'm still learning my way around. Basically, as one who makes his living through preaching to others, like St. Paul preaching til Eutychus fell out the window after he fell asleep, these blogs will be a feeble attempt on my part to communicate in a less captive and numbing manner. I will mainly comment on issues and topics related to Christ and the Church, but may venture at times into topics and issues far beyond my knowledge and expertise. Fortunately, few will ever see my more foolish ruminations.