Saturday, December 27, 2008

Year Of The Great Porcelain Flushing Device

I figure it is incumbent upon even an erstwhile blogger such as myself to do at least one more post before this year vanishes. Of course, it is natural to look back at this year and do a few ruminations as to its place in one's overall life experience. For me, while this year has its ups, like growing in Christ, learning to trust God more, enjoying a wonderful family, and deepening friendships, it will be remembered by me primarily for its downs. Thus, the thought expressed in the title. I don't want to be totally negative by saying this was "The Year Of The Crapper," hence my attempt at a positive spin --- "The Year Of The Great Porcelain Flushing Device."
There are two primary steams that have merged to make a mighty flush this year.

The Economic Stream

In June, after having left a cushy job as pastor of a church due to a difference in principles, it finally became clear that God was not as concerned about maintaining my credit score as I was. Or maybe it is better to say that God had a much different agenda in mind than I had. Anyway, in June my wife and I missed our first mortgage payment ever. And that is when I learned that a certain large banking company operates its business using a second grade understanding of math.

We went through this bank's "counseling" service with the assurance that a catchup plan would be offered in order to help us get current again in our mortgage. After working on this for about a month, an official from the bank called to tell us that they had figured out the problem in our finances and they had a plan to fix it. The problem, they announced like a child who has discovered their thumb, is that "You don't have enough money to pay your mortgage." Wow! Was that ever a shocking surprise to my wife and me. And their solution was even more stunning in its insightfulness. "All you need to do is pay your past due amount and that will make you current in your mortgage." Again, to encounter such wisdom is wilting, like coming out of the dark into the bright sun.

Leaving my sarcasm to make a more salient point, I now know firsthand how mortgage companies can be so condescending and unhelpful when you are a customer in financial trouble. Part of the crisis is the inane behaviour of the banks themselves as they actually force people toward foreclosure. As Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke has pointed out, if banks would work with their troubled clients rather than simply pressuring them, the banks could recover many of their at-risk mortgages. When people are able to stay in their homes, the mortgages get paid. When they are forced out, everyone gets stuck with the bill.

On the miraculous side, just when we needed more income desperately (as my wife and I had only been able to find short, temporary jobs since our exiting Hus Church), God set in motion a series of extraordinary events which led to us having regular work at the local General Mills cereal factory. Although this was through a temporary job agency, the crew leader at General Mills appreciated our positive attitude and desire to do our work well. This gave us the first substantial income since leaving Hus Church, and was a bridge to the more stable income we have now with my wife and me working so-called "permanent" jobs. We are still struggling to just survive each month (which we will till either I find another ministry position and/or sell our house), but God has been so gracious in giving us at least a stabilized financial situation for the time being.

The Career Stream

I've never really viewed my calling to be a pastor as a career. If I did, I would have never taken the risks I have over the years, like leaving a church that was vital and growing (and wanted me to stay) to explore a call to intentional Christian community, or dragging my family to Croatia to strengthen existing ministries and develop new ones. My willingness to set aside what is prudent career-wise for what I believed God wanted me to do was the key factor in my taking the pastor position at Hus Presbyterian Church.

When I first arrived at Hus Church I found a formality-encrusted congregation with deep rifts of resentment toward one another due to past church crises. During my five plus years of faithful service there were many miraculous changes in its atmosphere and ministry. As I tried to emphasize and practice trust and openness, this congregation that was basically invisible in its own neighborhood became known throughout the Cedar Rapids area as an "old well with fresh new spring water flowing forth." The service became an uplifting experience where the presence of Christ was sensed and the Spirit of God moved in the hearts of many. Many longtime members encountered Christ as their Lord and Saviour for the first time in their lives, and despite some very critical opposition from some who wanted a church with no expectations and a Christ who made no claims, the church made incredible strides toward becoming a biblical, Spirit-led, Gospel-proclaiming, outreaching, missional church. God confirmed our direction by blessing this church with incredible miracles, such as healings, new believers, and a doubling of funding for ministry. However, in my fifth year I was brutally reminded that people who are intent on destruction are ever waiting, ever vigilant, for their opportunities. As it became clear that the detractors were being given influence, and that key leaders were now intent on retreating from the demands of being a missional ministry, I began the work of leaving this ministry and seeking a new one.

After a year and half of seeking a new ministry, it has become clear to me that my career (at least as much of a career as I ever had) is probably in the great bathroom flushing device. I can hardly count the times I've had pastor search committees tell me how much they are attracted to me, but they are reticent to present to their congregation someone who "didn't stick with" their previous ministry.  Plus, there has been an undercurrent that I'm becoming more aware of as time goes on, and that is the reluctance of search committees to consider someone of my "age." Apparently, only those who are younger than fifty are considered truly able to be good ministers. When "having to leave" a previous ministry and being over 50 years old are combined, it apparently adds up to "we are attracted to you BUT we really can't consider you." Never mind that I am better equipped now through years of training, experience, and spiritual growth than I ever was in my forties, never mind that I have children younger than most people in their thirties, and never mind that I have at least twenty prime ministry years ahead of me.

Yet, I have seen God's leading in this career wreck. Both my wife and I believe that one reason God sent us to Hus Presbyterian Church was for our own disciplining. (I'm talking about discipline in a positive sense of training, teaching, and perfecting.) Looking back, we now believe that instead of leaving our work in Croatia to come home for the medical needs of our middle son (who has cerebral palsy), we should have stayed and trusted God to provide. Instead of letting God receive the glory by guiding us to answers for our son's needs there, we took matters into our own hands and in effect said through our actions that "God isn't going to provide in this case, so it's up to us." This was after God had performed miracle after miracle in getting us to Croatia and then taking care of us in absolutely incredible ways. So after coming back to the United States, God sent us to a church with an eastern European heritage similar to Croatia. But in this case it was all the negative aspects of eastern European culture without any of the enjoyable positives. And it is not just coincidence that during my last six months at Hus Church I kept hearing several leaders say over and over that "We can't expect any more miracles here at Hus." Shocking words to hear expressed openly, but what my wife and I had in effect said with our actions 6 years earlier. While there are many other reasons with far greater positives for God sending me to Hus Church, disciplining my wife and I was certainly foremost among them.

Then there is the incredible blessing of our two youngest children, who we adopted during our time here in Cedar Rapids. This is definitely one of the "rewards" for our obedience in serving at Hus Church. My wife has always sought to help children, and foster care has been one of the ways for doing this. Our 5 year old son and our 3 year old daughter both came to us through this route, and they are definitely worth all that we have gone and are going through. Since both are African-American, we definitely get some strange looks at the grocery store, not to mention the scolding looks my wife used to get from some of the stodgy people at Hus Church. These two, along with our 10 year old middle son, keep my wife and I motivated to keep on keeping on. With three young children and two others in college, it is so important to stay positive and continue to look forward; seeking God's will and hoping for something better.

This brings me to the end of this blog and the end of the Year of the Great Porcelain Flushing Device. God be praised for this year, and God be praised this year is ending. Now after this cathartic exorcising of the downs of 2008, I am looking forward to new and better things in 2009. Hopefully, this year God will lead me to a new ministry that is exciting, promising, and joyful. For any and all who for whatever reason are still reading at this point, my prayer for you is that 2009 will be an up year for you as you seek to serve God with all your heart, mind, and soul.

In Christ's Peace,


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Leaning Into Hope

Do you ever have those times when all the concerns of family, life, finances, job, friends, schedules, school, appointments, and physical needs seem to pile up on you? If this ever happens to you, how do you feel? Tired, agitated, angry, anxious, and fearful? Most of us have very busy lives, but every now and then, I think most of us also have those moments when we get a good glimpse of all the different concerns we are juggling at the same time, and we wonder how in the world we can keep managing it all!

Lately, those of us in the United States are becoming much more familiar with the meaning of "apocalyptic." With the economic meltdown, the uncertain direction of American political power, and resurgence of the threat of a terrorist attack in this country, we find ourselves able to relate to phrases like "the sun being darkened" and "the moon turning to blood." Whatever can be shaken is being shaken, and Americans who are used to being secure and confident in everything from money to government are being shaken in ways they never imagined to be possible.

Panic in the face of an overwhelming reality is a danger for everyone, and Jesus points out that this can cause us to lose focus on God and what God is doing for us. When we lose this focus, we lose hope. And hope is what makes us able to meet all the challenges in our lives, to face all the difficulties, and to handle all the problems. In speaking to His disciples about the importance of hope in an apocalyptic world, He said: “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.” (Luke 21:34)

Now, we don’t think of ourselves as people who are necessarily into “dissipation” or “drunkenness,” but what about the “anxieties of life?” How many of us find ourselves in an all too familiar relationship with these? If we focus on our anxieties without looking at the promises we have in Christ, then our lives can start looking pretty bleak. This is how important hope is! Hope that is real and not just wishful thinking comes through knowing Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. It is trusting Him not only with our problems, but the problems of the entire world. This is what gives us the strength to live above our circumstances rather than under them, and to not be overcome by the “anxieties of life.”

I think of it as “leaning into hope.” I may be weak and tired, but I can lean on God’s promises in Jesus Christ, and they will hold me up. I may feel like quitting and giving in, but God’s promises call me to move forward, so I “lean into” what God has for me in the road ahead. Hope is a vision of the future that gives us strength for the present, and God gives us this vision when we know Jesus, and keep getting to know Him better through prayer and meditation on the Word. As we live our lives in the security and confidence that comes only through knowing Christ, the world can see clearly what Christ can mean for those who follow Him. It is in times like these that Christ followers have a special opportunity to display the life-giving, hope-giving grace of God in ways that are attractive to people who are drowning in the world.

Many studies have shown that people tend to become depressed and “weighed down” more during the Christmas season than any other time of the year. Perhaps that is why so many people tend to increase their “dissipation” and “drunkenness” through partying and excessive shopping. It is an attempt to fill that emptiness of soul that only hope in Christ can fill. I believe the Spirit of God is calling us all to make this Advent and Christmas season truly filled with joy, peace, and love by not relying on our own strength to meet all life’s challenges, but instead to receive the abundant strength of Jesus Christ.

Let’s all “lean into hope.”

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Recapitulation (with apologies to Irenaeus)

Well, it has been about six months since the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly. My post-Assembly depression has subsided and I have moved on to a kind of "hopeful indifference." Basically, it seems to me that the best path forward is a combination of what the Presbyterian Global Fellowship and the New Wineskins congregations are doing. That is, each congregation that desires to be faithful to God, the Bible, and the Christian faith must essentially set aside denominational concerns and network directly with other congregations that are evangelical, orthodox, and catholic.

This does not mean ignoring the PCUSA, nor does it mean ceasing to win this denomination back to its call to be faithful to God. But it does mean that when it comes to doing the mission of God in this world, we can no longer view the structures of the PCUSA as allies in this venture. For the most part, our denominational structures are more intent on gate keeping than ever before. Witness the responses of most presbytery officials to those churches seeking to be dismissed to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. They have been ruthless, heavy-handed, and so bureaucratically minded that they have brought nothing but shame upon all of us in the PCUSA. Plus, since the General Assembly six months ago, it seems the animosity of liberals toward evangelicals has become even more virulent than it has ever been. In my experience, the attitude of the liberals is approaching fascism. There is a desire to squelch all dissent from the liberal agendas by any means, even if the means are hate-filled and vicious.

So, why remain in such a hostile and toxic denominational environment? In a major way, I am saying we should opt out of this environment, but not by leaving the denomination but by becoming focused on mission with other like-minded congregations across the denominational spectrum. In a sense, I am advocating a more authentic connectionalism with the true body of Christ, which is ecumenical without ideology and far beyond the frontiers of mere denominations. This is a spiritually healthy and invigorating (dare I say --- joyful!) working reality with other faithful Christ followers.

So, why not just leave the denomination totally behind and shed ourselves of its dysfunctional restraints and obsolete structures? No, we stay because this is where Satan and evil are assaulting the Christ and His reign. And as Martin Luther so dramatically stated, we are to stand our ground precisely at the point where the devil is most forceful in his attack. This is where we are faithful to Christ, and this is where the Word of God is to be wielded as a sword against evil.

Some may object to my characterisation of those who reject God's Word and wish to worship at the altar of human experience as agents of the devil and evil. To be more precise, I am not saying they are themselves evil or Satan's missionaries, for the evil I see in others is but a reflection of the evil I harbor within myself. However, I will say that many of the liberals of the PCUSA have allowed themselves to descend into the domain of Satan, where in this darkness they are open to the influences and objectives of evil. How else can anyone so blatantly seek the destruction of marriage as instituted by God, be so indifferent to the slaughter of millions in the womb, be so offended when the Gospel is proclaimed to bring non-Christians to faith in Christ, enthusiastically align themselves with despotic purveyors of injustice who exploit vast populations, and discount the Word of God as the final and highest measure for all beliefs and actions.

I seek to be faithful to my vows as a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA. After all, I made these vows before God, not just a presbytery. However, my ultimate allegiance is not to a denomination which is but an artificial construct of human ingenuity. Rather, it is Christ who is my Lord, and it is Christ who is head of the Church, and the Church is the body of Christ as it exist within and through the many denominations and traditions of this historic Christian faith. It is with this Church that I will engage in faith and mission, and it is with this Church that I will worship God for eternity.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Blame It On Tillich

Occasionally and with much regret, I ponder the times in my past when I was incredibly foolish in buying into sophisticated rationalizations for acting in very ungodly and self-centered ways. In other words, it is very painful to see how I have been so adept at justifying sin in my life.

There have been several periods in my younger years in which I indulged in things that were clearly wrong, but in each instance I had convinced myself that what I was doing was okay and even sanctioned by God in some form or another. Then there have been sinful desires that I nurtured even into my beginning years as a pastor by deeming them as "natural" and "human affirming," like viewing sexy movies as "artistically expressive" or promoting sustained anger as a just response to whatever I perceived to be injustice. Like Eve in the third chapter of Genesis, I could not just directly disobey God by eating the fruit of the tree of knowing good and evil. First, it was important to find some "good" reason for eating the fruit, something that would justify the action as right and worthy. In this way, I was able to fool myself, and even like Eve was able to openly defy the clear Word of God while convincing myself that I was acting in a righteous - albeit self-righteous - manner.

The problem for me has always been my fear of missing out on all of what life has to offer. I have this voracious appetite for living life to the fullest. This is what attracted me to following Jesus in the first place. When I walked down that sawdust trail to give my life to Christ, it was in response to a sermon emphasizing that in Christ we can have life that is abundant and full. This is something I desperately desired, and still do. However, I've since discovered Satan has my number on this, and has used it to lure me into his dark domain where he can then influence my thinking and my living. After all, Satan can not tempt or torment any follower of Jesus unless we willfully choose to descend into darkness, for only there is Satan's power wielded with effectiveness against God's people.

Obviously, if I had been more diligent at studying the Word and immersing myself in prayer, there would have been less opportunity for me to be led astray, but where I became most open to yielding myself to evil's influence came not through the blatant attractions of defiance and immorality, but through my thorough and prolific study of philosophy and theology. In fact, I can even pinpoint the theologian and writing that most equipped me for justifying my sin, and that was Paul Tillich and his little book, Love, Power, and Justice. While I read Tillich primarily to "know how the enemy thinks," the subtleties of his reasoning were (dare I say) "beautiful." His use of existentialism in constructing a reality that ennobles all human desires in a struggle with the "void of non-being" profoundly resonated with my fear of missing out on living life to the fullest. Even though my copy of this little book is marked up with very negative comments that I wrote in the margins, his sophisticated reasoning captured something deep within me.

I thought I had mastered an understanding of Tillich, his thought had instead mastered me, thus now enabling me perniciously to justify my own sinful desires as being intrinsically "human" desires that need to be expressed in order to live fully. I began to see life as a Promethean struggle against all that would negate or demean the goodness and worthiness of basic human instincts. In this way, even the most vile desire of the flesh can be made to be a noble quest for discovering meaning. And like most who embrace this path for human potential or self-authentication, the wounds incurred become scars of honor for one's courage to go into the forbidden areas of life. This is a major theme in writers like Hemingway, Henry James, Balzac, Joyce, and Sartre. What is clearly revealed as sin in the light of the Word of God becomes rationalized as a courageous path for becoming fully human. In one sense, this lie of evil is sadly very truthful as one does discover what is fully human, but human in the sense of our deep alienation from God and the nightmare of regret-filled despair.

So, do I blame it all on Tillich? No, for it was the evil in my own heart that simply seized on Tillich's brilliant reasoning as a tool for justifying doing sinful things. Thankfully, the light of God's Word and the prayers of many faithful fellow disciples enabled me to recognize the darkness as the domain of Satan, and lifted me up into the life of the Spirit of God. Thankfully, it is only in God's Word that a remedy is found for being "fully human" in the sinful sense. Only in the Christ is there the healing grace of God that enables me to overcome the despair of my sin with the hope of God. Only when we can be lifted into the presence of God and find acceptance despite our unworthiness is the fullness of life truly discovered as God the Creator of life meant it to be.

As Irenaeus wrote so long ago - in a manner similar to Tillich's but infused with the light of God's Word - "the glory of God is man fully alive." But this is not mere life seeking to make its own meaning out of human existence; no, this is life that is from God, of God, by God, and for God. Homo adorans, human life that glorifies God, not justifying our sinfulness.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Summer Of Survival

Any of you stumbling upon this blog can plainly see that my last posting was some time ago. It isn't because I haven't had any ideas since late June, but after then I entered into a very intense time of plain old survival. After almost a year of not making the income I had in previous years, and spending much of June dealing with local flood issues in Cedar Rapids rather than keeping my finances in shape, my bank account was looking like Old Mother Hubbard's cupboard --- quite bare! With bills and a rather demanding mortgage facing me, my wife and I had to turn all of our attention to finding ways to survive not only financially, but emotionally as well.

So, since late June I have been spending a lot of my time working a temporary job at the local General Mills cereal plant, doing preaching for vacationing pastors, and negotiating pay schedules with various creditors who have this crazy desire to get paid promptly. It has been a real eye opener as I have experienced first-hand what many people deal with on a regular basis as they scrape each month just to get by as best they can. This normal day-to-day survival that is normal living for millions of people has proven for me to be very intense and, in many ways, debilitating. I've discovered that when one struggles financially a gulf is created between those who are doing well and those who are not. It seems that financial struggle is considered by some to be a sign of laziness, incompetency, lack of intelligence, or even in some cases, a sign of spiritual weakness. At the same time, my wife and I have found that there is a special bond of mutual encouragement and support with others who are facing hard and difficult times of whatever kind - financial or otherwise.

While this summer has had a hard edge for me, it has given me a greater depth of understanding when I talk with someone who has lost a job, is overwhelmed by medical bills, or is facing a mortgage crisis, or is just laboring to keep from going under. I know now the fear and stress that for so many has become just a part of ordinary living. However, I also have come to know in deeper and more visceral way the amazing grace of God that is just as real in the most difficult points of life as it is in the more stable times. I've learned how to pray with a real connection for people in all kinds of crises, and to empathize more truly with those who dealing with serious and emotionally-draining issues. As my friend Dick Speight of Come Rest Ministries says and writes about, I've become much better at "resting in God's love."

Yes, it may have been a tough summer of surviving, but it has been a wonderful summer of becoming more trusting of God, of really believing in God's goodness, and of experiencing the realities of God's grace in the midst of sending my zillionth box of Cheerios down the packing line at work. I've also been privileged to see the great respect I enjoy from my ministerial colleagues in Cedar Rapids as they have expressed care and concern through out this last year, with some pastors and churches even extending their generosity to helping out financially. (Sadly, my fellow pastors in the Presbytery of East Iowa have not exhibited such an uplifting Spirit.) I've met some very noble people who do menial work to scratch out a living, and they do it with incredible grace and a sense of purpose that puts me to shame (and repentance) for my condescending attitude and unthankful heart.

If God so chooses to lead me back into a ministry as a pastor in a church (and believe me, it will definitely have to be God's leading), my sense of compassion and empathy as a pastor for what people go through will be a thousand fold what it was before this year began. So, I have to say that for me the major emphasis of the church I presently attend has happened --- that is, I have become more Christ-like. And after all, isn't that the mark of a truly successful life!

In Christ's Peace,


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Post-Assembly Depression

As this year's General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA closes, I am again confronted with a very sobering and depressing reality. I must again face the fact that I am a minister in a denomination that is woefully unfaithful to Christ and the Scriptures, and that is led by false leaders (which is generally what God sends a group of people in consequence of their persistent disobedience to God.)

However, this time I am more depressed than in previous General Assembly years. The patent absurdities and blatant God-rejecting actions of this Assembly are beyond anything I have ever seen before (and I was a commissioner at the Syracuse Assembly (209th) in 1997, and that was pretty weird). For the first time in my 27 years as a PCUSA minister, I believe I must seriously start looking at what it means to live life as a disciple of Jesus who is affiliated with a group other than the PCUSA.

Has the PCUSA become so self-negating in relevancy and theological integrity that it has "broken covenant" with all Christians who are seeking to live faithful lives as disciples of Jesus Christ?

There are lots of things I could refer to and write about from this last week, but I will highlight two key and, perhaps for me, decisive actions that reveal the absurdity of this "no thought" assembly. First of all is the action to "investigate" the alleged practice of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in "persuading" PCUSA congregations to leave for the EPC. Only the most unthinking and unaware minds could ever miss the obvious reasons why churches are leaving the PCUSA, but apparently there was a large gathering of these minds in the San Jose Assembly. They were apparently willing to drink the "Louisville kool aid" which asserts that churches must be "drawn away" from the PCUSA in order to leave. This means being blind to all the reasons within the PCUSA itself which almost compel churches to leave. Let's not face our own faults, but instead blame them on a handy scapegoat, and what scapegoat is more handy than a member of our own Reformed family!

But the part where this action really becomes absurd is when we considered the background of other actions (see reference 1 below) by this assembly seeking to dialogue and improve relationships with Muslim, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic communities. Apparently, we are more desiring of working with groups such as Muslims who consider us to be lower than dogs and at the best, depraved infidels (though in this case I beginning to think the Muslims may have a point) than we are with a sister Reformed fellowship that just happens to be staying more true to our mission goals than we are. Again, we are apparently more concerned to please and placate our standing with the Anglican churches, who consider our lack of bishops an insurmountable flaw in our ecclesiology, than another Reformed body that has done a wonderful job of practicing the biblical mandate for equality between "clergy" and "laity." And one more time, we are more anxious to seek dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, who in official declarations have declared us to be "defective separatist" who are outside the main succession of the Apostles' teaching and authority, than we are with another Reformed church that freely recognizes as part of the whole church any Christian group where the Spirit is present and active. But no, we are going to accuse and persecute the Evangelical Presbyterians who are our closest family members while we seek friendship with those who think we are very deficient Christians at best or who loathe and detest us at worst.

(Let me be clear that I am for open dialogue with any group, fellow Christian or otherwise. I just think it is absurd to say we are seeking this with other groups when we are not extending the same courtesy to the EPC. This make us stink like the hypocrisy attacked by Jesus, where we are "white washed tombs" filled with "dead men's bones." Matthew 23:27-28)

Then there is the second key thing that has really got my Calvinistic goat, and that is the incredible absurdity of the actions regarding "retranslating" the Heidelberg Catechism. Of course, this is all to get rid of the word "homosexuality" in a negative wording in the text. This has nothing at all to do with anything to do with historical integrity or a search for the truth. In my learning about the Presbyterian Book of Confessions, it was always emphasized in my congregational experience and in my seminary training that the confessions guide us in part by being snapshots of the church at a certain time and place, and by showing us how different Christian communities have responded to the issues of their day in seeking to be faithful. In this way, some of the less noble aspects of our confessions were still instructive because they served as honest examples of how previous Christians sought to live out their faith. In the confessions we see both successes and failures in doing this, and thus the confessions teach us and guide us in our faithfulness today through their historical integrity.

Now, we find a new expectation being applied, which, if logically followed, would mandate the constant rewriting of all the confessions. Now, we are told, the Heidelberg Catechism must be "retranslated" to reflect where we are at as a church today at this time and place. Apparently, all the confessions should reflect who we are now. If this is so, we need to gut the Scots Confession to get rid of all the negative slams on the Roman Catholic Church. We need to rewrite the Barmen Declaration because it is very tied to the rising threat of National Socialism in Germany. Certainly, we are no longer in the same place politically anymore. And God knows not many of us PCUSA'ers relate well to the Trinitarian language in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. Certainly, those demand some extensive revision to reflect "who we are today."

And why is it that a true reflection of who we are as a church just happens to be politically and theologically liberal? I guess I missed the declaration made by some authoritative body somewhere that "we" are all theological "progressives." So much for any evangelical, orthodox, or conservative's (that is to say, my) "freedom of conscience." Apparently, such freedom is the province of the liberal mind alone.

Anyway, this is what I'm thinking today as I work through my post-Assembly depression. Sometimes I think the PCUSA could do very well if we could eliminate General Assemblies altogether. They seldom ever help the rank and file in the churches, and more often than not bring us grief and torment. I've been able to keep most of the work of past assemblies, both positive and negative, in a hopeful and tolerant perspective, but this assembly has me wondering for the first time if the end has finally come to the PCUSA, or at least, maybe the end of the PCUSA has come for me!

Reference 1: Actions of GA relating to EPC and other groups.
On Calling for Tolerance and Peaceful Relations Between the Christian and Muslim Communities
On Response to an Invitation to Interfaith Dialogue. (Baltimore)
On Peaceful Relations Between the Christian and Muslim Communities. (Chicago)
Mutual Recognition of Baptism with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (Committee on Ecumenical Relations)
Episcopal Presbyterian Agreement. (Com. on Ecumenical relations)
On Investigating the Actions and Conduct of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. (Peace River Presbytery)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Falling Among The Charismatics: Living In A Pentecostal Reality

I haven’t really had any marked changes in my theology during the past few years, but I have had to reconsider my personal feelings and comfort level with Christians who worship and live according to a Pentecostal or charismatic expression of Christianity. Charismatic Christianity is rapidly becoming the most prevalent form of self-understanding in Protestantism today. It is the overwhelming form of Christian expression in South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (including China). According to some Christian prognosticators, charismatic forms of Christian belief and practice will be “normal” Christianity by 2050, and will include Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and whatever is left of the Protestant traditions. So, all of us in one way or another must decide what our personal approach will be to those who call themselves charismatic or Pentecostal, since this is most like the future of most our congregations.

In my time in Cedar Rapids, I have been a leader in building inter-denominational coalitions for serving and reaching this community. In doing this, I have become very close to many of the Pentecostal and charismatic leaders. After finishing my time at Hus Presbyterian Church, my wife and I have become regular worshippers with a local but world renowned charismatic ministry, River of Life Ministries. My close friendship with a local charismatic Methodist pastor has led me to work with him in his "prophetic" retreat ministry which helps people enter into a deeper walk with Jesus through basic spiritual disciplines. While I have never been opposed to the more “Spirit-led” expressions of Christianity, it is only recently that I have been challenged to think through my own beliefs regarding this phenomenon due to my own proximity to those who are part of it.

Therefore, I have learned that the traditional Pentecostal/charismatic groups have matured in their use of Scripture for understanding the work of the Spirit. Most charismatic denominations, such as Assemblies of God, emphasize the biblical maxim that “manifestations of the Spirit” must be for the common good of the church’s ministry of demonstrating the power and presence of Christ. Speaking in tongues is to empower prayer for not only the person praying but for the work of the whole church (which is actually a very ancient emphasis in Christian experience). Being “slain in the Spirit” (again a known occurrence in Christian experience over the ages and in many forms) is to provide for a special work of grace in a person’s life to overcome a problem or perform a special ministry. As Larry Sohn of the Assemblies of God says, “It isn’t what happens when you fall on the floor that matters. It’s what you do when you rise up and face the world.” Francis Frangipane, a major charismatic leader and good friend of mine, points out that the most important manifestation of the Spirit is not speaking in tongues or performing healings, but becoming a Christ-like person whose life bears the “fruits of the Spirit,” such as love, joy, peace, humility, and patience.

I have experienced the manifestation of God’s Spirit primarily in my giftedness as a preacher and teacher who awakens others to the adventure and excitement of following Jesus. To see people respond and discover the call of God in their lives is exhilarating to me. I have never spoken in tongues, but I have had the Spirit speak to me in visions when I particularly needed encouragement and hope. These make for interesting stories, but in each case God was enabling me or preparing me to be faithful in a challenging situation. Recently, in the Grand Canyon, God revealed more clearly than ever before my abject sinfulness and incapability to seek God in my own strength. This wasn’t through voices or visions, but through the use of the geophysical characteristics of the Canyon in the light of the Scriptures I was meditating on (and this includes one beaucoup incredible lightning storm incident).

I am usually around people who have very amazing and affirming experiences of God’s Spirit. This, I believe, is one way God speaks to His people when the Word and the Spirit are allowed to form the church community according to God’s desires. The principle, that Word and Spirit must be together, is critical in understanding the various manifestations of the Spirit; otherwise churches can become so focused on the spectacular that they even begin to “tempt” God, such as when Satan dared Jesus to throw himself down from the Temple to gain people’s allegiance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s warning in his book, Life Together, is to be heeded.
It is, therefore, not good for us to take too seriously the many
untoward experiences we have with ourselves in meditation. It is here that
our old vanity and our illicit claims upon God may creep in by a pious
as if it were our right to have nothing but elevating and fruitful
and as if the discovery of our own inner poverty were quite
below our dignity.

Every church I have ministered in has had very trustworthy people who humbly say they have had amazing and miraculous things happen in their lives. Yet, this has never been about elevating the importance of dramatic or spectacular events, but affirming the greatest manifestation of all: the presence of the risen Christ with us His people. The most dramatic spiritual experience any of us can have is to realize that we carry “this treasure in earthen vessels,” (II Cor. 4:7) that Christ’s mission continues through us!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tag! You're It

I guess this is something started by Bruce Reyes-Chow, who apparently is "emerging" as the next moderator of PCUSA. I think I've got the rules down, but here goes whatever. You who I tagged now answer these questions and tag five others. At least this little exercise got me to do another blog post after some time.

What is your earliest memory of being distinctly Presbyterian?
For me that would be in high school when I became involved in some street ministries led by several Presbyterian churches in Wichita, Kansas. As I talked with some of the church leaders, it dawned on me that these were theological views and outreach emphases that I shared.

On what issue/question should the PC(USA) spend LESS energy and time?
We waste so much time on so many things that this is hard to choose. I would say almost anything that focuses attention and power on Louisville is something we should spend less energy and time on. In fact, if we could scale down Louisville to be nothing much more than a small support office without any programming interests, that would be great. Even things that Louisville claims only they can do, like administrate national and international missions, could be done much better and more creatively through natural networks formed by Presbyterian churches. Yes, liberal churches would probably form liberal networks and evangelical churches evangelical networks, but then cooperation would be a natural outcome of shared interests rather than every group trying to coerce the other into some kind of awkward and forced partnership. Plus, dialog between networks would be voluntary, genuine, and productive.

On what issue/question should the PC(USA) spend MORE energy and time?
We need to be spending much more time on discipling the people in our churches and then sending them forth to do innovative mission outreach. The institutional membership mindset is what is killing us. I find it incredible the various projects and expenditures made by many presbyteries while neglecting the reality of the spiritual apathy in many of our churches. Presbyteries need to lead churches to develop clear and effective discipling approaches, and then allow people in the churches to be daring and creative in doing outreach ministries in their communities. Right now, many presbyteries still act as gatekeepers and obstacle courses to be overcome (or many times even sidestepped) by mission minded Presbyterians.

If you could have the PC(USA) focus on one passage of scripture for a entire year, what would it be? Matthew 11:28-30
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
I, like many, am tired of all the striving in the PCUSA. There are too many of us pushing and carrying our own agendas rather than just resting in God's love and receiving what God has for us in Jesus.

If the PC(USA) were an animal what would it be and why?
Rather than an animal, I have always thought of the PCUSA being more like an old IROC-Z Camaro I once had (prior to marriage and kids). It was a beautiful piece of machinery that had the capability of working like a marvel, except that it always had something wrong with it. Most of the time, the injection system needed tweeking, or the electrical system had a loose connection somewhere, or the computer was acting up. It took a lot of time and work, but when everything was working together, it could cruise at 90 miles an hour with only the slightest effort. We Presbyterians are sort of like this. We spend a lot time working on ourselves, but every now and then we get in sync. In those times we become a marvel of mission that brings great glory to God.

Extra Credit: Jesus shows up at General Assembly this year, what does he say to the Presbyterian Church (USA)?
Jesus tells us to throw away all the overtures, disband the committees, and spend the whole time in prayer, confession, repentance, and seek each other's forgiveness. Then He tells us to sell our Louisville headquarters, many of our church buildings, cash in many of our investments and give them to the poor, and come follow Him.