Caring For Your Introvert

A classic essay from Jonathan Rauch.

A sample:

Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? Who growls or scowls or grunts or winces when accosted with pleasantries by people who are just trying to be nice?

If so, do you tell this person he is “too serious,” or ask if he is okay? Regard him as aloof, arrogant, rude? Redouble your efforts to draw him out?

If you answered yes to these questions, chances are that you have an introvert on your hands—and that you aren’t caring for him properly. Science has learned a good deal in recent years about the habits and requirements of introverts. It has even learned, by means of brain scans, that introverts process information differently from other people (I am not making this up). If you are behind the curve on this important matter, be reassured that you are not alone. Introverts may be common, but they are also among the most misunderstood and aggrieved groups in America, possibly the world….

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An Atheist Who Gets It

A lot of the atheists I run into have a really warped view of the Bible–almost the mirror image of the fundamentalist view. I understand where that comes from–it’s largely a reaction to vocal fundies in the media. But for people who espouse the virtues of rational discourse to dismissively refer to the Bible as a collection of fairy tales about an evil old man in the sky is an absurd a failure to see what it actually is–about as absurd as saying that it is inerrant and never contradicts itself.

Robert Price, an atheist speaking to a group of (mainly) atheists, gives them a better view of what the Bible actually is, and why even a non-believer can (and should) love it.

Listen to it here, on the podcast of the “Point of Inquiry” radio show.

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Finding a New Church Home

At age 38, I am looking for a new church home for only the second time in my life.

Up to this point, almost every time I have moved–about nine times as an adult–I’ve either had personal connections at a congregation in my new town, or I was moving to join a church staff. The only previous time I’ve had to look for a congregation to join was when I left to attend seminary. I found it a surprisingly frustrating experience. I had no idea how easy it was to visit a church, attend worship, and leave without making any sort of a connection with anyone else. Eventually someone from one of my courses invited me to visit her Sunday School class, and I settled into that congregation simply because I finally had some connection to another person, and once I had that, my base of friends grew pretty quickly.

On one hand, visiting churches is easier now. Families of four aren’t as easy to overlook as a single introverted man, and since my children are ridiculously cute, they tend to attract a crowd. And after all my years in ministry, it’s easier than it used to be to find the preacher and chat him or her up after worship. I’m less inhibited about that than I once was.

One the other hand, the field has broadened significantly. Until now, I was emotionally tied to a particular denomination, and now I’m open to almost anything. I even visited a Southern Baptist church last week, which quickly confirmed for me that although I love my dear SBC friends, I’m not going to join them anytime soon. I don’t resonate with the theological impulses or the cultural mores there.

We’ve visited two Disciples of Christ congregations. I’m drawn to them because I know their history well and I think I’m picking up on the culture. One was a disaster, but the other was a real possibility, except that there just really aren’t any other folks our age. I’m not one of those people who won’t talk to someone more than five years away from my own age–I really have strong inter-generational tendencies. But I do want some other 30-somethings (soon, 40-somethings) around, and, more than that, I want a group of preschoolers for my kids to befriend.

We’ve also visited two Methodist churches now, and both of those are real possibilities, if I can get over my antipathy toward pedobaptism. One of them, a church of around 100 in a town of around 1300, I really loved visiting. It had one of the strongest senses of community I’ve experienced, and although the music was fine and the sermon was quite good (and a little daring in ways that I appreciated), what really stuck with me was the laughter. Not from silly jokes or dramatic sketches, but spontaneous moments of real human connection–just people enjoying being with each other, and feeling free enough to let out a chuckle at one another’s foibles and idiosyncrasies. It felt as much like home as anything we’ve tried in months. At first I was tempted to just land there, and I’m pretty comfortable with Methodistism theologically, so I think we will go back there again.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is how hard it is to look for a congregational home in a theologically responsible way. I’ve typed and then deleted the phrase “church shopping” a dozen times just writing this out, because I don’t like the consumer-driven mentality it implies and I sure hate church marketing. One of the quickest ways to make sure I never come back to your congregation is to try to sell me on it–how wonderful the children’s program is, how upbeat the music, how relevant the sermon. The last thing I need in my spiritual development is to be pandered to. But still, there is a choice to be made and it needs to be made somehow. No one ever trains people in how to find a Christian community that fits them.

I’m certainly open to learning more, and but here’s what I think I’m looking for:

1) authentic community
2) sacramental centrality
3) healthy balance of involved laity and respect for clerical authority
4) a sense of grounding in the ancient Christian tradition
5) a missional impulse that sends the church into the world, rather than inviting the world inside the cloister
6) a willingness to challenge visitors with a hard calling rather than woo them with the soft sell
7) a group within the church that will join and support me in my pursuit of spiritual disciplines (or, better yet, invite me to join them)
8) emotionally and intellectually engaging worship

I don’t know where that church is. Maybe nowhere near me. But I’m looking….

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Congregations Gone Wild

This editorial hits the nail right on the head. I don’t think I have a single quibble. Here’s a taste:

THE American clergy is suffering from burnout, several new studies show. And part of the problem, as researchers have observed, is that pastors work too much. Many of them need vacations, it’s true. But there’s a more fundamental problem that no amount of rest and relaxation can help solve: congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.

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God and Grieving

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

C.S. Lewis
A Grief Observed

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Experiencing God

Having said (probably at too much length) that the phenomenon of “hearing God’s voice” is problematic because there is no scriptural precedent or teaching to support it, I do want to mention that I’m not completely closed to arguments from experience. If the people who tell me they are hearing God’s voice were getting messages that, in retrospect, were obviously true and beyond human capabilities, then I think I’d be the first (well, maybe the third or fourth) to say that there’s really something divine at work. But I’ve never seen a clear example of that and I’ve seen lots of examples of messages that turned out to be completely false–sometimes in very damaging ways.

In my single days, two different girlfriends told me that God had revealed to them during prayer that his will was for us to get married. Neither of those marriages happened. I broke off the first relationship, and my girlfriend at the time broke off the second one. I guess according to Susan, I stubbornly resisted God’s will for our lives, but I’ve always wondered what Melissa thinks about that situation now? If God told her in June that we should get married, but she dumps me in December, how does she process that? Does she think God changed his mind? I doubt it. Does she believe that she has disobeyed the revealed will of God for her life–that marrying me is a worse fate than being outside of God’s will for her? Probably not. I suspect that she probably decided that, upon further reflection and longer experience in the relationship, she must have misunderstood what God was saying to her. After all, he speaks in such subtle ways that one could think that he is saying “marry this guy!” when he is actually saying “DON’T marry this guy!” Since he speaks through inner impressions in one’s heart, important words like the emphatic “DON’T” can get lost along the way.

If Melissa, a devout Christian woman who sincerely believes in the importance of obeying God’s voice, can completely misunderstand him on a matter as important as whom to marry, it seems to me that we need to look pretty skeptically on these “messages.” It also seems pretty clear to me that in the vast majority of instances, what God seems to tell someone is more or less exactly what that person wanted to hear at the time. In June, she wanted to marry me; in December she didn’t. God’s words in her heart tracked along with that pretty conveniently.

In the greater scheme of things, no harm done, I suppose. But there are instances where the belief that God is speaking and working in imperceptible ways does cause harm. In two situations that I have been close to, a young woman (one in her forties, one just past thirty) fell ill and died after a protracted stay in the hospital (one week; one month.) Both times, friends and family rallied around to “lift the woman up in prayer” and both times, every tiny improvement was taken as a sign that God was responding to prayer and healing the woman. The people close to her went for days or weeks trusting and proclaiming that God was gradually working a healing miracle, right up until the day that the final breath came.

I can tell you, it’s pretty awkward being the only one in the waiting room who doesn’t break out into applause and amens when some dear brother or sister proclaims that God is healing our friend–especially when you are the preacher! But on both occasions, the situation was pretty much what I thought it was–a beloved person was almost certain to die, and the collective response of the church was to ignore reality, clinging to the slim hope of a very unlikely recovery and calling their wishes “God.”

I’m not going to be critical of those people’s reaction in the moment. The were heartbroken and hesitant to accept reality, and I understand that, even though I’m not wired that way. But I am going to be critical of a modern church culture that, rather than emphasizing that because of the coming resurrection, we can face death–our own and that of our friends–with the genuine biblical hope of renewal and restoration, leaves families grasping for signs that God has given their friend a reprieve. And I am not happy when I interact with ministers who encourage such superstition rather than balance it. To me, that’s theological malpractice, if there is such a thing.

I could go on and on, but those examples illustrate them phenomenon well enough. In every case, sincere, devout, prayerful people were completely wrong when they claimed that God was saying or doing a certain thing, and in every case, they assumed he was doing just what they wanted him to do. They put their own hopes on display and called them God. That’s not really idolatry, but it is on the same supermarket aisle.

If I had any countervailing examples–some occasion where a bit of knowledge was given far beyond human wisdom that turned out to be true–I would say so. But I don’t. And I’ve been down this road a lot, as a lifetime church-goer and a minister. People tell me a lot of stories. Whenever someone says “God told me…” it winds up being either irrelevant or harmful.

It is usually regarded as either cruel or unspiritual to try to try to burst to bubble of the God-listeners in this way, which is part of why I’m blogging about it in such clear terms. Church folks who resist the tide are looked down upon or subtly disregarded, so maybe it’s worth it to know that there is at least one random blogger out there who is troubled by this, too. It’s not good for church communities to let the last word go to whoever claims most emphatically to have heard from God. Theological reflection is harder–but more firmly grounded–than that.

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God Can Do A Lot of Different Things

So, if you’ve been tracking this blog, you already know that I get a little grumpy about folks claiming they hear from God all the time. My biggest concerns with the whole “hearing from God” phenomenon are that (1) there’s no biblical precedent for it, (2) it redefines the voice of God as an inner impulse or coincidental sign that is immeasurably tiny and meager compared to the overwhelming kinds of ways in which God is actually depicted as communicating in the scriptures, and (3) it substitutes the firm foundation of a scriptural grounding for an ongoing quest to figure out what God wants of me in a way that smacks of pagan diviners looking for a sign to determine what the capricious spirits want of them each day. I consider that a step backward from the Christian tradition toward the more primitive cults that preceded it.

One of the most frequent responses to my line of thinking is something like “couldn’t God communicate through these subtle means if he wanted to?” That came up in the comments in the previous post, and I’m glad it did. It can from someone who is pretty clearly thinking about these issues in an open and healthy way, and they reminded me that I need to address that question specifically.

It reminds me of when I was a single preacher-wanna be back in seminary. I was good friends with the administrative assistant for the graduate school of theology, and I would drop by her office to chat between classes sometimes. Occasionally the conversation would turn to the latest person I was dating, or whom I wished I was dating (but striking out with), and Lynell would say “Don’t you think that God is big enough to choose your spouse?” My typical response was “God is big enough to pick up this whole building and shake it until we all fall out.” The question isn’t what God is big enough to do, but what he is likely to do, based on what we know of him from the scriptures.

In other words, saying “but couldn’t God do [this thing that I want him to do] if he wanted to?” is a response that could apply to anything, including thousands of things that the person who says that would never agree that God was doing. God could send me messages through the arrangement of letters in my alphabet soup. God could decide what the next step of my life will be based on this week’s “Dora the Explorer” map. God could consider tomatoes an abomination, such that he will damn to hell anyone who willingly eats one, and doubly damn the fast food workers who put tomato slices on my sandwich even though I told them not to. In my crankiest moments, I briefly hope that is true.

Sure, those are absurd examples, but “couldn’t God do that if he wanted to?” supports them just as well as it supports “couldn’t God decide to speak into my heart in subtle ways?” If we’re going to move away from having a Biblical foundation for our practice, it’s going to be hard to know where to draw the line. I understand that for a lot of people, God sending them signs makes a lot of sense, but, again, the Christian tradition says that we aren’t really supposed to relying on what sounds good according to our own reasoning. That’s the whole point of having the mind of God revealed in scriptures. We don’t need to try to work this out for ourselves.

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God Told Me To Tell You To Read This

A classic from Bill MacKinnon: No Voices in My Head

Update– This is my favorite bit, and it hit me like a 2×4 when I first read it a few years back:

It is curious to me that if someone in a typical evangelical church stood up and said an angel spoke to him and told him that God wanted him to be a missionary to Africa, we would be very skeptical at best. Yet if that same person stood up and said that he “just really feel led to go to Africa to be a missionary”, the “amens” and applause would be deafening. Yet the former is biblical and the latter is not.

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Now I Might Actually Go Back

From the church we worshiped with this past Sunday, the best visitor’s letter I have ever received:

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The Wrong Definition of Having Faith

I’ve been wanting to comment on a certain strain of American evangelical culture for a while now and haven’t been sure how to get into it, but Mike Cope broached the topic, so I’ll take this as my opportunity to jump in.  He’s commenting on Jason Boyett’s new book O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling, and I’ll re-quote part of the book Mike quoted:

“When you live and work within the American Christian subculture — especially the less liturgical, more conservative, evangelical, megachurch sub-subculture — you hear a lot of people talking casually about the intimacy of their relationship with God. The way they tell it, they get frequent, distinct impressions from the Holy Spirit. They get personal promptings from Jesus. They get very specific answers to prayer and detailed directions about even the most trivial aspects of their lives.

“I’ve heard someone tell a friend, ‘I woke up in the middle of the night and thought of you, and it was definitely the Holy Spirit wanting me to pray for you right then and there.’ I’ve overheard a middle-aged woman say, ‘It was totally a God thing that my flight got cancelled, because I got to share my faith with the lady next to me. Talk about a divine appointment!’

“I’ve heard musicians credit God with having written their song lyrics. I’ve heard businessmen give God credit for finally coming through with the promotions for which they’d been praying. I know a few people who don’t hesitate to reveal that God told them to quit their jobs and go into full-time ministry.

“One Sunday I overheard someone give this breathless recap of a worship service: ‘The Lord totally showed up in church this morning. When we got to that key change in “Breathe,” you just knew God was moving.’

“You’ve heard this kind of talk too, maybe coming out of your own mouth. Please understand me: I’m not telling you — or them — to stop. I’m pretty sure most of those kinds of statements express a sincere and real faith in a personal God who is intimately involved in our lives. That people talk this way is not what bothers me.

Unlike Boyett, I am asking them to stop, and I’m not at all sure those statements reflect a sincere and real faith in a personal God who is intimately involved in our lives.  I think it reflects a sincere and artificial faith that mistakes predictable responses to certain stimuli as the work of God.  Far from being more spiritual, I think that people who are always going on about the latest thing that God has said to them are less spiritual.  One of the keys to authentic life with Yahweh is not taking the Lord’s name in vain, which I take to mean, in part, not acting as though your own thoughts and purposes necessarily have divine approval.  If it’s wrong to falsely proclaim that God has damned something, surely it’s also wrong to falsely proclaim that he has blessed something.  I’m not going to be as generous about this stuff as Boyett is.  We seriously need to knock this stuff off, and we definitely need to stop sending the signal that that real Christians hear from God on a regular basis.

Why does it bother me so much?

1)  It’s unbiblical.

Search the scriptures are closely as you can.  You aren’t going to find any instances of God leading someone through a coincidence, or a gut feeling or an intuition. That never happens. No one ever tries to discern God’s will for their lives. His general will is communicated through the scriptures, and if he has a specific mission for someone, he sends a message that can’t be missed–an audible voice, an angelic visit, something like that. As soon as someone says “God laid a message on my heart” they have departed from all Biblical precedent. You can, of course, argue that not every Christian practice needs to have Biblical precedent, and for some matters, I would agree. But on the central question of “how does God communicate with people?” I’d sure like to see a verse or two that supports our practices.

2) It “defines divinity down.”

Another problem with hearing from God every afternoon is that when your way of hearing from the Lord is completely indistinguishable from the routine products of your own imagination, the experience of God has became so meager and small that the glory of God is inevitably diminished. Frankly, I’d much rather worship a God who communicates clearly through overwhelming personal encounters, but rarely, than a God who works in my life exactly the same way coincidence and personal insights work for atheists.

We’ve gotten used to speaking about the presence of God and the voice of God in casual ways that don’t knock us down to our knees (and that certainly doesn’t line up with the biblical testimony). I’ve often thought about that when I’m in a worship service where they sing “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord”

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see You
I want to see You

To see You high and lifted up
Shinin’ in the light of Your glory
Pour out Your power and love
As we sing holy, holy, holy

The sounds great to sing, but do we realize what we are asking for? When someone sees God high and lifted up, it isn’t a fun or casual experience, and you don’t leave feeling good about yourself. Just ask Isaiah.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

One of my big pet peeves is when some human person cleverly designs a worship experience for maximum emotional impact through dramatic lighting and moving song selections, and then, when it is over says something like “God really showed up and showed off tonight!” This bothers me because a) nothing happened here that doesn’t happen in secular concerts or movies every day and b) if God had decided to show up and show off, you wouldn’t be telling me about it over dessert at Chili’s. You’d still be in the sanctuary shaking with fright, and we’d be on our way there to bring you a clean pair of pants.

3) It’s a pagan worldview in Christian language.

In Deuteronomy 30, when Moses has finished passing on to Israel the commandments that God gave him (with an audible voice and written tablets, not a warm feeling in his heart), Moses says:

The LORD will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your fathers, if you obey the LORD your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

In other words–I’ve just laid out God’s will for you. It’s really clear, and now you all know it, and there’s no need to worry about how you are going to know what he wants. He’s told you up front.

This is really, really great news, because it means they don’t have to do what the pagans do, which is read tea leaves and animal entrails to try to figure out what the gods want, or search for signs in the heavens, or–worst of all–go to some witch or necromancer to see if the souls of the departed have any insights. One of the incredible plusses of the biblical tradition is that everything we need is set down in print.

Have you ever noticed that when Jesus encounters someone who isn’t hip to God’s agenda, he never says “you need to spend more time seeking God’s will for your life”? Instead he points them to the Bible. “Have you not read….?” This is one area where the Judeo-Christian tradition is in sharp contrast to the surrounding culture of the ancient world. Having written scriptures is better than having to search for signs of the divine will, and it’s a move backward (and one that mystifies me) to leave the assurance of a scriptural grounding for the uncertainties of analyzing your gut feelings.

I once heard someone say “Faith isn’t believing that God will do whatever you want him to do. Faith is believing that God will do what he has already promised to do.” He never promised to pick out your college, or your spouse, or your job, and whisper the answer to you. He didn’t promise “divine appointments” or messages laid on your heart. No matter how much we might want those things or how great we think they are, it doesn’t seem to be the way that God prefers to operate. And it causes all manner of practical problems. But more on that later, maybe.

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Something Better Than Heaven

A friend of mine asked me to preach for him last week while he was away on vacation. This is the rough draft of my sermon, which more or less follows what I actually wound up saying when I got there.

I’m going to depart from my normal preaching style this morning. That’s probably okay with you, because you don’t know what my normal preaching style is. Well, I’ll tell you. What I normally do is start with a reading from the Bible and spend the rest of the time in a sort of extended study and explanation of that passage, sticking closely to the text all the way through. One of the nice things about that kind of preaching is that no one ever asks “where is he going with this?” If they do ask, the answer is “I’m not going anywhere—we’re hanging out in this text all morning, just going deeper and deeper into it.”

That’s how I normally preach, but that isn’t how I’m preaching this morning. And I’ll tell you up front why I’m not. The first reason is that there are several passages I want to discuss, not just one. I want to give us a big picture of a Biblical teaching. My normal preaching is kind of like an architectural blueprint, with lots of notes that show how the planks and railings of a passage fit together. What I’m aiming for this morning is more like a water painting of a landscape. I’d like to leave you not with all the details worked out, but with a big picture that you can carry with you. The second reason I’m leaving my normal pattern is this: the passages that I really want to talk about are difficult for modern people to grasp right away. And that isn’t because the words are complex—they really aren’t. It’s because we have about an 1800 year history of reading them in a certain way that I’ve come to believe almost completely misses the point. Sometimes we read them the same way my daughter opens birthday presents. She’ll cut the ribbon and tear the paper off and then hold it up for everyone to see and say “Look! It’s a box!” You have to keep prodding her sometimes to get her to move past the box—which I admit is a wonderful and attractive thing—and get her to open up the present inside.

This morning, I want to try to get us to open up the box, but to get there we need to make some preparations. So let’s start someplace else. Let’s start with a Starbucks coffee cup.

Joel Stein is a writer for the Los Angeles times, and I think it’s fair to say that he had no idea when he first wrote those lines that they would eventually kick off such an enormous controversy.
World Net Daily conducted a survey asking its readers for responses to the coffee cup quote, and a near tie for first place among the 7600 responses:

27.64% said they will do their best to avoid buying anything at Starbucks in the future.
27.36% said it’s leftist garbage from a leftist company based in a leftist city.

Over at The Christian Courier, Wayne Jackson agreed, calling the cup “display of contemptible ignorance,” and asking his readers, “Why not put your money where your heart is, instead of into some humanistic-oriented corporation that has an agenda hostile to those who reverence the spiritual?”

You and are just barely getting to know each other. Right now, all you know about me is that I’m friends with Shane, and I don’t know whether you think that’s a good thing or not. So at this point I’m going to leap out in faith and make a confession.
Here’s my confession:

I think Mr. Stein has a point.

Try as I might, the popular images of heaven just don’t grab my imagination. Robes and harps, angel wings, lazy days among the fluffy clouds. That might be nice for an afternoon or even a few weeks. I’ll really stretch and say I could learn to like that for a year or two. But for all of eternity?

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who’s ever had that thought, and I know what the approved response is: if you were just spiritual enough, you’d love the idea of heaven. Your problem is that you haven’t really cultivated the taste for worship and prayer. If you liked church better, you’d be excited about an eternity of praising God.

To quote Wayne Jackson:

The foregoing erroneous images of heaven are the result of….the lack of disciplinary training in things spiritual, in contrast to aggressive pursuits of the material. Many Christians truly do not fathom how they will be able to be happy in an environment where there is no golf, Monday Night Football, or shopping malls.
Quite frankly they find worship on earth dull—as obviously reflected in their patterns of church attendance. The thought of serving God continuously is a frightful nightmare to the “spiritually challenged.”

Now, that might be the right diagnosis for some people. I don’t know. But I’ve got to tell you, I don’t find worship dull—well, most of the time I don’t. And I’m a pretty faithful church goer. I read my Bible regularly, I sing and pray every night with my children, and I spend a fair amount of time meditating on the things of God. Sunday morning is my favorite time of the week. I love a good gospel meeting. I’m sure I have a ways to go, and it’s dangerous to deny your own weaknesses, but I don’t think my lack of excitement about heaven has to do with not being churchy enough. I’m pretty churchy.

Furthermore, I have no interest at all in either golf or shopping malls, and—while I realize this is a true heresy in these parts—I’m really not all that much of a football fan. I can give those things up with no hesitation at all.

And, of course, there are some things about the traditional picture of heaven that I just love. Really, really, love. No more death! Hallelujah! No more sickness! Amen. No more pain or sorrow! No more farewells! The hope of dwelling in the true presence of God the Father and the Lord Jesus—to be surrounded by the saints of all the years before. To walk with loved ones who have passed on before me. That’s a joy and a wonder.

Those things are so wonderful that it makes me a little embarrassed to admit that I find the harps and clouds and wings part pretty boring to contemplate. But I do. Not only do I understand where Joel Stein is coming from, I kind of resonate with this coffee cup, too:

And even though in the church we know we are supposed to long for heaven, it’s a challenge for some of us to work up much excitement. I think the problem is that there isn’t much that the Bible tells us about heaven; the little bit we do read is pretty vague and the incomplete picture that results just isn’t always enough to stir a person’s imagination.

What’s missing in that picture for me are things like surprise. Challenges. A sense of accomplishment. Worthy goals. And, to be honest, things like feeling wet beach sand pushing up between my toes. Pushing myself to hike up a mountain, feeling the blood pump and the muscles groan and respond. I’m going to miss things like learning and exploring. The feel of a handshake or a pat on the back. Can wispy souls shake hands in the clouds?
I’m going to miss building things.

There’s a lot about life on earth that I love.

And you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that the things I’m talking about are bad or frivolous things. Don’t the scriptures testify that those things sprang from the creative mind of God? As he made the things that fill our planet, didn’t he say over and over again “This is good! This is good! This is very good!” I agree with God! I like the Earth! I think he did a great job! It brought him pleasure to create and it brings me pleasure to receive it, and to join with him in the work of building and restoring. I like it—and I think I’m supposed to like it.
I guess what it boils down to is this: if the traditional picture of heaven that you and I grew up with is right—if the physical is stripped away and there is nothing left of me but a soul, there’s just a lot that I’m going to miss.

You know what I think I would really love? If I could have the good things about physical embodiment without the down sides. If I could have hugs but be done with heart attacks. If I could have exploration but be done with illness. If I could have challenges but no more losses. If God’s actual plan wasn’t to do away with the Earth, but to renew it and restore it—I would love that. No more spilled oil, no more litter, no more rubble. Just clear blue skies, soft green grass, pristine oceans. If his actual plan wasn’t to leave us as bodiless souls but to resurrect us into perfect, eternal bodies, real solid bodies that could never age or die, forever—wouldn’t take be marvel? What if we could have all the things we love most about the traditional picture of heaven, but at the same time hold on to all that we love best about life on Earth. Hugs and handshakes and swing sets and forest trails, with Jesus himself and all the people we love.

And what if I were to say to you that as near as I can tell, that’s exactly what the Bible promises, over and over?

1) The expectation of the disciples was that if Jesus came back, he was going to come back in a bodily form.

So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

2) Jesus is only the first of many who will be raised in a new body.

12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27For he “has put everything under his feet.”[c] Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
–1 Corinthians 15

This is much more than a promise that “my soul will live forever in heaven after I die.” The Biblical promise is that I will be back—changed, immortal, renewed, and restored, certainly, but me.

But it doesn’t end there.

3) God will restore and renew all of creation.

10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
11Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
–2 Peter 3

18I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that[i] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved.
–Romans 8

1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
— Revelation 21

Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. 19Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, 20and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. 21He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.
Acts 3:17-21

Why we almost completely stopped talking about restoration, renewal and resurrection and shifted to hoping that our souls would wind up in heaven is a long and complex story, but I think the short version is that a cultural tendency to discount the importance of physical things led our spiritual forebears to assume that God couldn’t really be interested in renewing earth and reviving our bodies—that his actual goal must be rest for our souls. And so, in spite of an abundance of verses about resurrection, and shortage of verses about the hope of heaven, we began to preach and sing as though getting in to heaven is what Christianity is all about. But that was never meant to be where we placed our hope.

Our hope is that just as Christ was raised, we too shall be raised, to new life, on the new Earth, forever.

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One Things the Gospels Never Say About Heaven

In the last post I looked at every verse in the gospels that mentions heaven.  Every single one.  Now, imagine that you were going to record and examine everything said in your average church about heaven.  How much of it would be about the souls of the faithful going there someday?

But when you look at the gospels, exactly none of the verses that reference heaven are holding it out as the eventual home of righteous souls.  None.

How did our rhetoric move so far away from the language of Jesus?

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Everything the Gospels Say About Heaven

The Flammarion Woodcut, a depiction of the heavens and the earth from 1888.

As part of my preparation for a Sunday School class I’m teaching next week, I decided to take a look at every place where the four gospels mention the word “heaven” and do a quick analysis.  This isn’t super scholarly–it was all done in English with some simple online tools, but it might be a good starting point for deeper study later.  I’ll try to write up some conclusions before long, but it might be fun (depending on your definition of “fun”) for you guys to take a good look first and see if anything in particular jumps out at you.  Again, this is a rough first look, done in my spare time over two evenings.

*   *   *   *   *

If you do a simple word search for “heaven” in the gospels, you find 123 verses that contain that word.

Matthew

Just over half of those verses, 65, are in the gospel of Matthew, which uses the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” where other gospels say the “the kingdom of God.”  That accounts for 31 verses, none of which are referring to the afterlife. Another twelve are references to “our Father in heaven,” used as a label for God.  Of the remaining 23, we have:

Lines that are in some way acknowledging heaven as the dwelling of the Father, the Spirit or the angels

  • 3:16-17 Two references in the story of the baptism of Jesus, in which heaven opens and the spirit of God descends, and then a voice from heaven calls out “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
  • 5:24 “But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne…”
  • 6:10 (The Lord’s Prayer) “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
  • 11:25 A reference to God as “Lord of Heaven”
  • 14:19 Jesus looks up to heaven as he prays.
  • 16:1 The Sadducees demand a sign from heaven
  • 18:10 “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”
  • 21:25-26 Jesus presses his enemies to answer whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from men.
  • 22:30 “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”
  • 23:9 “And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.”
  • 23:22 “And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.”
  • 24:36 “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
  • 26:64 “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
  • 28:2 “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.”

References to the faithful storing up rewards/treasures in heaven

  • 5:12 “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
  • 6:20 “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…”
  • 19:21 “Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Heaven mentioned as part of a hyperbolic figure of speech intended to reinforce a teaching point

  • 5:18 “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
  • 24:35 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

A declaration regarding apostolic authority

  • 18:18 “”I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”

A declaration regarding the authority of Jesus

  • 28:18 “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.””

Mark

The word “heaven” appears only 14 times in Mark, (1:10-11, 6:4,; 7:34, 8:11, 10:21, 11:25,30-31, 12:25, 13:31-32, 14:62, 16:19) all of which can be placed into the same categories used for Matthew, and most of which are parallel passages to a line in Matthew.  The one notable line which Matthew doesn’t contain is Mark 16:19, which is part of a longer ending added by an anonymous scribe.  The oldest manuscripts of Mark end at verse 8.  16:19 reads “After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.”

Luke

Luke uses the term 28 times.

Usages seen previously in Matthew and Mark

Lines that are in some way acknowledging heaven as the dwelling of the Father, the Spirit or the angels

  • 2:15  “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven”
  • 3:21-22   At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends from heaven and the Father’s voice calls from heaven
  • 9:16  “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them.”
  • 10:21 “Father, Lord of heaven and earth”
  • 11:13 “your Father in heaven”
  • 11:16 “a sign from heaven”
  • 15:7 “rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents”
  • 15:18,21 “I have sinned against heaven and against you”
  • 18:13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”
  • 19:38 “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
  • 20:4-5 Jesus presses his enemies to answer whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from men.
  • 21:11 “signs from heaven”
  • 22:43 “an angel from heaven appeared”

References to the faithful storing up rewards/treasures in heaven

  • 6:23  “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.”
  • 12:33 “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
  • 18:22 “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

Heaven mentioned as part of a hyperbolic figure of speech intended to reinforce a teaching point

  • 21:33 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

Usages unique to Luke

Heaven as the originating place of the sun

  • 1:78        “by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven”

Heaven, the place from which divine punishments are issued

  • 9:54  “When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them ?”
  • 17:29 “But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.”

Heaven as the place where Satan once was

  • 10:18     “He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”

Heaven is where the names of the faithful are recorded

  • 10:20 “However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Heaven, the destination of the resurrected Jesus

  • 9:51  “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”
  • 24:51  “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.”

Obviously, where exactly one draws the lines between categories is a matter of subjective assessment.  The final category could easily be placed with the first, (Lines that are in some way acknowledging heaven as the dwelling of the Father, the Spirit or the angels), but I thought it important to set it apart in this analysis because of the sheer importance of these verses to Luke.  9:51 marks a major turning point in the narrative—any scholarly outline of Luke will take note of the shift that happens here.  24:51 is at the very end of the book.  Most of Luke’s narrative is bookended by the line announcing that Jesus will at some point be taken up to heaven and the line that depicts it happening.

John

John’s themes and interests are very different than those of the other three gospels, and that is evident in his sixteen uses of the word “heaven.”  Four of them come under the most prominent category from the synpotics:

Lines that are in some way acknowledging heaven as the dwelling of the Father, the Spirit or the angels.

  • 1:32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.
  • 1:51 He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
  • 12:29 Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.
  • 17:1 After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed

Of the other twelve occurrences, all are found in chapters three and six, and all twelve make exactly the same point:

Jesus came down from heaven

  • 3:13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.
  • 3:27 To this John replied, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.
  • 3:31 “The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all.
  • 6:31 Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ “
  • 6:32 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.
  • 6:33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
  • 6:38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.
  • 6:41 At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
  • 6:42 They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
  • 6:50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die.
  • 6:51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
  • 6:58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”

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On Conscientiously Refusing to Praise Humans

It’s been a busy, busy month–thus, the lack of blogging.  My wife and I are still in our contest to see who can get a job first, with no winner yet.  She’s had a few interviews, the most recent of which may still result in an offer.  I have an interview next week for a community college adjunct faculty position, which wouldn’t pay much–but it doesn’t take much money to improve on zero.  I am so looking forward to telling my grandkids stories from the great recession.

Our daughter turns four today.  Due to our moves and transitions, she is currently without friends, so when we noticed that one of the Methodist churches in town was about to start a VBS, we signed her up, and then worshiped there the Sunday before VBS began to get a feel for the congregation.

I’m inclined to have warm thoughts toward Methodism in general, because of my affection for the work of Stanley Hauerwas, William Willimon and Richard Hays, who have significantly impacted my own thinking.  (I understand that Hauerwas is attending an Episcopal Church now, but his roots are Methodist.)  I explored the idea of becoming a Methodist pastor once, but I can’t get enthusiastic about infant baptism, although I see the argument for it.  I wouldn’t say that I’m against it, or that I think it’s invalid, but I was raised in a tradition that immersed professing believers, and that symbolic act still resonates powerfully with me in a way that pedobaptism just can’t match.  I suppose if I had been raised Methodist, my feelings would be just the opposite, but I wasn’t, and you have to go to war with the memories you have, not the ones you wish you had.   I’m also not keen on being told which church to go to and when–although I haven’t always done a dandy job of sussing out by myself which congregations would be a good match, so I might be able to get over that one.

At any rate, we attended this Methodist church and found it, overall, delightful.  Very welcoming, very enthusiastic.  It was an unusual Sunday for them, because they were wrapping up a mission trip (to the heathens of neighboring Oklahoma) and kicking off their VBS, so the whole service was given over to testimonies, appreciations and explanations.  As a visitor, I rather appreciated the chance to get some insights into the life of the congregation that I wouldn’t get on most Sundays.

One thing that stood out to me was the two or three times that a specific instance of laudable work was mentioned, and the speaker would always offer the caveat that, “Of course, I’m not saying this to give glory to Jim (or Carol, or Brandon)–we’re giving all the glory to God.”

I’ve heard that sort of thing in churches of various stripes.  I’m sure it’s not limited to Methodism–although it was so pronounced that I wondered if the refusal to honor humans is particularly strong in Methodist culture.  I admit  that always strikes me the wrong way.  I get it that we’re shunning pridefulness and encouraging thanking God in all things, but surely there is some room to acknowledge Jim, Carol and Brandon made some exemplary choices through their own free will that can be praised and emulated.  Scripture doesn’t seem to shy away from doing that.  Just look through Romans 16, for example, and watch Paul praise one person after another, without ever stopping to snatch the plaudits away from them and redirect them toward God alone.

Humans need exemplars, and we need to be told when we’ve done something well.  Unabashed praise of outstanding work is a blessing both to the worker and to the witnesses.  It gives us something to aim for.  A friend of mine says “You get what you praise.”  As church leaders recognize and honor certain kinds of activity, the congregation moves further in that direction.  I’m a little concerned that perpetually saying, “Of course, it’s not Jim that we’re honoring, it’s God” will leave Jim feeling a bit deflated, wishing that his community could at least notice that he did some really hard work that he didn’t have to do, and that he chose it.  Others are concerned not to diminish the agency of God, but Jim is also a moral agent, and I don’t see the value in pretending otherwise.  If Jim gets no credit for his work, and it was God alone that made him work hard, then it was God alone that made Skyler lazy, and God alone that decided that Suzy would feign an illness and run off to the liquor store during the Thursday evening devotional.  If there’s really only one moral agent in the universe, then human awards and punishments are an exercise in futility–unless the only point is to try to discern the mind of God by noticing which particular meat puppet he used for good deeds this week and which he used for criminal ones.  That doesn’t seem like a fun game to me.

Yeah, the person who stood and praised God for the things that Jim did probably didn’t mean it that way.  But words are powerful, and words of praise especially so.  Let’s go ahead and clap for Jim.  If he becomes prideful, then let’s pull him aside and rebuke him.  Either way, at least we are appreciating that he, too, makes choices.

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Shifting Over Time

There’s been a lot going on the past few weeks.  We packed up our house and then I drove from North Carolina to Texas in a 26 foot U-Haul moving van–just me with my almost-four-year-old daughter and 14-month old son, traveling over 1300 miles in 2 1/2 days.  Packing up everything you own is a good spiritual exercise.  It makes you realize just how much stuff you’ve accumulated.  For me, it’s somewhat depressing, as I like to think of myself as freer from materialism than the average American–and I probably am, but “less materialistic than the average American” is kind of like being “less murderous than Ted Bundy.”  You can meet that standard and still leave a trail of bodies in your wake.

So, blogging has been set aside while we moved into our temporary headquarters, AKA job search central.  I know I want to settle back in Texas, nearer old friends and family, but exactly where depends on where my wife or I find a job and perhaps what jobs are close to a school where I can train for a post-ministry life.

While I’m doing all this soul-searching and stock-taking, I’ve been thinking about the major ways that my thinking has shifted over the years.  I probably want to think and write a little more about each of them over time, and it’s already late tonight, so think of this as kind of a place-holder for content that may or may not follow later.  Even this is subject to revision.  But I think my major shifts have been:

1. From a static Bible-based faith that sought to preserve and maintain the first-century church to a stance that sees the Bible as one part of a living, breathing tradition that grows and changes as it engages God freshly in each era.  Part of this shift has been my acknowledgment that the Bible itself is far from monolithic, and itself models wrestling with existing traditions and adapting practices to new situations.

2. From an emphasis on orthodoxy (believing the right things) to orthopraxy (doing the right things.) Both are necessary, but I feel like I grew up in a church culture where doctrinal correctness and “chapter and verse” Bible knowledge were expected, but whether anyone ever actually fed the hungry or clothed the naked was completely off the radar.  Frankly, a lot of the minutiae we studied was either pointless or actively harmful, and kept us from going out into the world and being Jesus for the dying.

3.  From looking for the work of God in the congregation alone to seeking Him at work in the world.  I think that 12 or 15 years ago I pretty much thought that anything I should do for God would happen within the context of the congregation, with the possible  exception of personal evangelism, but even then, the point was to get some, ahem, “unchurched” person to join my church.  But I don’t want to “church” people–I could stand a little less “churching” myself.  I think the hardest part, for me, about trying to be a deeply devoted Jesus-follower and a minister in your standard American religious congregation is that Jesus has this tendency of calling religious leaders on the carpet for burdening people with the legalism, for caring more for like-minded insiders than struggling outsiders, and for missing the radical love and grace of God even though they had memorized so many verses.  I kept seeing myself and my tradition in the people that Christ excoriated.  I spent a lot of time asking myself where Jesus would be if he were incarnated in the 21st century, and no matter how I ran the numbers “in ordained congregational ministry” was never the answer.  I’m not saying there isn’t a place for it, or that some churches aren’t doing a wonderful job of forming people into ambassadors for Jesus.  There is and they do.  But I do think it’s harder than most folks think to be a preacher and to be like Jesus.  He won’t be bound in church life.  But this is more biography than theology, perhaps.  What I mostly mean is it’s a lot harder for me to radically follow Jesus from the context of a staid ministry position than I realized until recent years.  He keeps pushing me out among the pagans, and I keep finding Him already at work there.

I feel like there’s something more kicking around in my brain.  Maybe it’ll crystallize in a day or two.  Time for bed.

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