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Friday, September 26, 2014

Tradition

     But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
     So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
-2 Thessalonians 2:13-15 (NIV)


I got a call this week from a domain hosting company, about a web domain name a group of church leaders I was working with had purchased a few years ago. Without further use for it, we had let it lapse. Somewhere along the line, I had become the administrator, and the company was calling to get me to renew.
     I told the lady who called that I didn’t want the domain name anymore, and she told me she could cancel it for me. “What is the User ID and password?” she asked.
     I had no idea. I wasn’t the one who had originally purchased the domain, and if I had been told what the User ID and password were, I had long since forgotten. I had to confess that I didn’t know.
     “That’s OK,” she said. “Do you think you can answer the security question?” I doubted it, but told her to go ahead and give me the question.
     Then she read it, and I realized that the person who originally bought the domain had been thinking ahead to a situation like this. The security question was, “What can wash away my sins?”
     I’ll give those of you who, like me, grew up singing that song in church every other Sunday time to scream out the answer. (You might just whisper it to yourself if you’re reading this at work.) 
      For those of you who didn’t grow up singing it in church, the answer is “Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
     Bet a fair number of you are humming it right now.
     I’ve been exchanging emails with a friend recently about worship. Or, rather, we were talking about what happens when the church is together for worship. (Those are probably different, but hopefully related, subjects.) Specifically, we were talking about the importance of tradition in worship, even in those churches where Tradition (with a capital T) is considered a problem. Because, whether you acknowledge it or not, tradition is an important part of what happens when the church gathers for worship.
     That’s because, I think, traditions develop out of theology and values. If you have the theological view, for instance, that Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist — even the language you use shows the influence of tradition — if  you have the theological view that in this part of the service God imparts grace to the worshipper, then the way you do it will reflect that theology. Likewise if you consider it nothing but a memorial meal, in which the church is active and God is just an interested observer. Some values will probably be attached to that; if God is acting during that part of worship, it will likely be heavy on ritual and ceremony, and the liturgy will be nailed down. If it’s primarily the church that’s acting, it will likely be less ceremonial and ritualistic, and there may be room for considerably more improvisation and variation.
     There are theology and values driving the kinds of music a church chooses for its worship, or the Bible translations a church reads from together, or the mode of baptism used, or how the worship space looks, or even the dress of the worshippers. Theology and values drive the formality — or informality — we expect of the worship service. It drives the way worshippers behave, whether they shout “amen” or clap or raise hands or sit still. Some of that theology and some of those values lie closer to the surface. Some we largely inherit from previous generations, without giving it a lot of thought. All of that — the theology and values that color our expectations of what “worship” looks like. They form our tradition.
     Sometimes, to be honest, tradition can suck the life out of worship. It can prevent a church — or a worshipper — from allowing the possibility of the Holy Spirit working through other forms, other traditions. It can turn what should be a life of gratitude to God into a colorless, empty life of drudgery. Tradition can break hearts instead of lifting spirits. It can enslave instead of liberate. Jesus warned against this very danger. When the preservation of tradition becomes the point of a church’s existence, then the work of God is undeniably compromised.
     On the other hand, Paul praised the church for remembering the traditions he had passed on to themeven if they needed a bit of an adjustment. Clearly, then, traditions aren’t always a bad thing. Sometimes they’re just what we need to recall what God has done for us, or to consider what our lives should look like as a result of his work. Sometimes tradition helps us to make sense of the world, to connect to something we know as we navigate something unfamiliar. 
     Remember that scene in Titanic? There’s panic and chaos on the deck as the ship starts to sink. Below deck, and older couple huddles together in bed, a man sets a clock, the captain stands lonely at the wheel, a woman tucks in her children. As people fight over lifeboats, a group of musicians on deck begins to play Nearer, My God, To Thee. It changes nothing, of course. The ship is still sinking. Most folks don’t even seem to pay attention to the musicians. And yet, we know as viewers that the song matters. In some ways, it makes more difference than anything else happening. The scene seems to say that traditions keep us calm in the midst of chaos, even right to the very end. They anchor us to something larger than ourselves, broader than our own lifespan, deeper than our own reserves of strength. 
     The gospel is itself a tradition. No one on earth today was a contemporary of Jesus, or has ever been acquainted with anyone who is. No one today has ever seen an original manuscript from any book of the Bible. The gospel itself has been passed down through the lives and words of people who believed before us. That accounts for the myriad different ways that believers have chosen to live that gospel out in their lives. But it’s no less true for having been passed down through all those centuries. In some ways, it’s more authentic now than it’s ever been.
     Our best traditions connect us to the gospel in ways that resonate with us, reassure us, remind us of the work of Jesus and its meaning for our lives. The traditions themselves aren’t the gospel. It’s independent of them. They can be confused with the gospel, and come to mean more to us than the gospel, but that doesn’t make the traditions themselves a problem. For my son, “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus” might not resonate as much as another song, or another tradition, but we all need traditions that connect us to the work of Jesus to calm our fear, remind us of our hope, and answer our questions. So explore your traditions. Reflect on the songs that give you hope, the prayers that encourage you, the practices in your church and in your personal life that connect you to the gospel. Develop new ones, with your church, your family, your friends.

     You might find that the traditions you keep will answer some security questions for you, too.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Abuse

    At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap,  in order to have a basis for accusing him.
    But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.
    When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone  at her.”  
-John 8:2-7 (NIV)


A confession: I like football. I watch the NFL. I even had Adrian Peterson on one of my fantasy teams this year.    
    I suppose liking the NFL is something that sort of needs to be apologized for after the last couple of weeks.
    I think the majority of NFL players are decent  guys, model citizens, good husbands and fathers. But it isn’t those guys who the media have been talking about lately. It’s a few others, guys who have hurt wives and children, who are dominating the coverage on not just ESPN, but NBC and CNN as well. We’ve seen videos and photos and police reports, heard press conferences and statements. The league and its owners have lurched wildly through slapping the wrists of the players involved, to indefinite suspensions, to letting them play, to barring them from any team activities. And that’s just this week.
    What seems to be clear is that domestic violence in the NFL, like domestic violence in society at large, is a much bigger issue than most of us seem to think, for two reasons. First, as the NFL has shown us, it’s easy to cover up. It’s easy to frame it as something else, to pretend that it’s about an argument that got out of hand. It’s easy to blame the victim, to wonder out loud why she would stay with the guy who hurts her, why she would marry the guy who knocked her out in an elevator. It’s easy to make noise about how children need discipline. It’s easy to hide the bruises and scars under expensive children’s clothes. Children’s voices are small, after all, and easily silenced by the threat, implied or explicit, of more violence.
    Beyond that, though, are the cases we don’t know about. What worries me about the last two weeks’ NFL scandals is not the known perpetrators and victims. The players responsible may have played their last games in the NFL. They’ll have to answer for their crimes, and maybe will get help to stop the cycle of violence. The victims will, hopefully, get some help as well, and go on with their lives. What really worries me is the victims who didn’t make the news cycles this week, who weren’t beaten by celebrity athletes and so haven’t captured our attention. There are a lot more of them, both inside and outside of the NFL.
    It may be that as many as 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. One in 3 women who are victims of homicide are murdered by a current or former partner. That’s a lot of victims who are never rescued, a lot of women, children, and yes, men as well, who have nowhere to turn for help. A lot of victims who can do nothing but resolve to try harder to please their abusers, or leave and face even greater violence and a future of homelessness and fear.
    Some of these unknown victims are in your circles. They work with you, go to school with you, go to your church, live on your block. They’re your kids’ friends, other parents in the PTA, that lady at the Seniors Center who you exchange pleasantries with. They bring your food and ring up your groceries, but they also care for your health and invest your money. They’re good at hiding the signs of abuse, and so the wrongs done to them often go unseen, unrecognized, unresolved.
    They’re like that woman brought to Jesus by a mob of scheming, mocking men — religious leaders. They came to Jesus with what they presented as a case of jurisprudence: “in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.” In reality, they couldn’t care less about this woman or her violation of the law. You hear the contempt in their voices — “such women.” They have a category for this woman, and she fits so neatly inside that they don’t even see her. She’s an object lesson. She’s a religious debate. She’s bait for a trap they’re waiting to spring.
    They never see her. She’s a woman who’s made some bad choices, but she doesn’t deserve the treatment she’s receiving at their hands. They don’t know why she’s done what she’s done, and they couldn’t care less, because they don’t see a person at all. I doubt they really intend to stone her, but I don’t think it matters to them whether she lives or dies. She’s alone, helpless, and afraid.
    At least until Jesus does what he does.
    I’ve always wondered what he wrote in the dust. Some folks say it was the names of the accusers, as in Jeremiah 17:13. Maybe. But what seems more important is what he said, and what he accomplished by saying it. When Jesus reminded the woman’s accusers of their own sins, they realized that they and that woman weren’t in different categories after all.
    Jesus took her side. Though there were undoubtedly things in her life that she couldn’t be proud of, he still took her side. And in taking her side he forced her accusers to see her as a human being, not a cautionary tale.
    Even people who follow Jesus have, from time to time, been on the wrong side of the domestic violence problem. We’ve kept the secrets that allowed domestic abuse to occur. We’ve quoted “spare the rod and spoil the child,” and encouraged women to go back to abusive husbands and just “try to be a better wife.” We’ve counseled abused partners against divorce when divorce might be the only thing that would save their lives. We haven’t wanted to believe it could happen among us, and so have allowed the abuse to continue.  
    May we instead see victims of domestic violence as, indeed, victims. But not just as victims: may we see them as human beings loved by God, in need of redemption like the rest of us, but in no way to blame for or deserving of what they’ve suffered. May we have eyes to see suffering, especially when it’s hidden, and hearts big enough to ask questions and offer help. May we have the courage to stand against those who would abuse others, whoever they are.

    Hopefully, the NFL is finally seeking to address this issue. As people who follow Jesus, we must always stand for the conviction that any abuse of human beings is against the will of God. Jesus accepted the abuse of his own body, spilled his own blood, for the promise of a world in which no one else need ever suffer abuse, not one more drop of human blood need be spilled. To whatever extent abuse happens in our world, we still wait for God’s kingdom. To whatever extent abuse happens, may we oppose it and work to end it. Not because a few celebrities got caught. But because Our Lord would have it no other way.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Rediscovering the Holy Spirit: Prayer


     Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit  by the works of the law,  or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? 
-Galatians 3:1-3 (NIV)


Over the last two weeks, I have tried to show how the fellowship of churches known as Churches of Christ, of which I am a part, have historically not demonstrated a strong view of the Holy Spirit as powerful and active in our lives. Our heritage in Rationalism, a philosophy which says that we understand the world around us through thinking about what we experience through our senses, has led us to value the Bible. But our rationalist perspective has taught us that living as Christians is all about reading, studying, and interpret the Scriptures rightly. I suggested that downplaying of the Holy Spirit’s role in empowering us to live for Christ has affected us in at least three ways: our corporate worship and ministry, private devotional life, and understanding of unity. I’ve tried to show that our attempts at unity have failed because we have tried to create it ourselves through the uniform interpretation of Scripture instead of focusing on the Spirit’s work of creating unity, and our responsibility to maintain it. I’ve also tried to show that our failure to give proper place to the presence of the Holy Spirit in worship has created in us the idea that worship is more an act of the will than an expression of gratitude and adoration, that it is has placed the focus in worship squarely upon what we do, as opposed to what God does, and that it has exalted preaching as the central event of worship, while minimizing the importance of other acts, including communion.
     This week, I hope to show how our failure to recognize the importance of the Spirit’s continuing work has hampered our private devotional lives. In short, there has historically been no theological vocabulary given to us that allowed us to expect that God would act directly in our lives or communicate with us in prayer, meditation, and worship. We have felt the need for just that. We have seen it in other Christian traditions. But we have not had a frame of reference that allowed for it in our own experience.
     We have, for instance, taught the importance of prayer, but largely because we understand that the Bible commands prayer. But we have not been able to say with any confidence what praying for healing, or forgiveness, or strength might accomplish. After all, if the Holy Spirit only works through the words of Scripture, upon what basis should we expect God to act in response to our prayers? The Bible might reassure us in our struggles, give us hope, show us a new perspective, reaffirm our faith, strengthen our resolve — but we have not imagined that the Spirit might act in our lives. And so we have again placed our hope in our own ability to understand, and not God’s promises to be with us, strengthen us, and ultimately save us.
     Spiritual growth among us has been about the memorization of and obedience to the words of Scripture. While I would share in the belief that familiarity with the Bible is indispensable for spiritual formation, the rationalist tendencies with which we have read it have placed the power for sanctification in our own intellects. We have learned, implicitly and explicitly, that we will grow in Christ to the degree to which we learn Scripture. Of course, there are multiplied examples of those who know Scripture and who have never learned faith or virtue. 
     It is the Holy Spirit who makes the words of the Bible a reality in our lives. There does not have to be a dichotomy between the Bible and the Spirit, nor should there be. The Spirit and the Word work together in the process of spiritual formation. The word is to be seen as a powerful means to the creation of new life — but only when energized through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will not teach any doctrine or lead in any way outside of the guidelines of Scripture. But it is the Holy Spirit that makes the Word effective in the life of a believer. It is due to the Spirit that the words penetrate past the intellect to the heart, reorder the priorities, and stoke the spiritual fires.
     Our private devotional lives will be better when we recapture the truth that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in our prayers (Romans 8:26) and bears fruit in our lives, and that we are to keep in step with the work he is already accomplishing in us (Galatians 5:22-25). It will be better when we are encouraged to pray for healing, for ourselves and each other, with renewed conviction of God’s power to heal sickness and overcome sin. It will make us courageous with the reassurance that it is “by the Spirit [that we] put to death the misdeeds of the body” (Romans 8:13) and that it is the Spirit we have received, and not our own worthiness that makes us God’s children (Romans 8:15-16).
     Thankfully, I don’t believe that the Holy Spirit needs correct theology to work in our lives. Every believer through the ages, in some way or another, has failed to understand correctly God’s work in the world, in his church, and in his life. And yet his Spirit has still worked, sometimes mistaken for something else, sometimes ignored entirely, and here and there noticed and praised with joy and hope. Where there is love and unity between brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit is there. Where there is worship bubbling over from grateful hearts, the Holy Spirit is there. And where there is spiritual growth, transformation, and genuine prayer, the Holy Spirit is there. 
     The Holy Spirit is among us, whether we understand that or recognize him. He is among us because of Jesus, who in his death, resurrection, and glorification has shared his Spirit with us. But we will be more like Jesus when we believe that his Spirit lives among us, and is working in us, and attend to his presence. What we might be, in fact, is beyond our imaginings. Because it is the work of God in us.
     So may we be attentive to the presence of the Spirit. May we read Scripture and pray and worship together believing that he is here among us, and expecting that he will do something powerful when his presence and our devotion come together. 
     And may we then be what the world needs most: the presence of Jesus, alive and working.

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