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Friday, March 27, 2015

Denominational

     Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.
     Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other.  For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?
-1 Corinthians 4:5-7 (NIV) 


The publication of a new directory of the Churches of Christ, the fellowship of churches that me and my congregation are associated with, has revealed something that most of us have already known for a while:  Membership in the US is down
     It’s down, publishers of this directory say, by nearly 8% since 1990, from nearly 1.3 million to a little less than 1.2 million. In the same time period, the total number of US churches that identify with Churches of Christ has dropped from 13,174 to 12,300: a net loss of 874 churches.
     Estimates are hard to come by, but most suggest that American church attendance in general is on the decline. In the same 25-year period, the nation's total population rose to an estimated 320 million, up from 250 million in 1990. That's an increase of 70 million, or 28 percent. So, in a time when the population of America is rising, the percentage of that population that goes to church on a regular basis is declining. And Churches of Christ are experiencing the same sort of decline. 
     Here’s what I find interesting, though: Churches of Christ have always said we weren’t a denomination. We don’t have a headquarters, or a yearly convention. Local churches appoint their own elders and deacons, call their own ministers, and handle their own affairs. Some local congregations are friendly an cooperative with one another, while others choose to isolate themselves. There are universities and colleges and schools located with us, and facilities to care for dysfunctional families or elderly people, and even some organizations that help to recruit and train mission teams. But none are supported by a denominational office, just by individual churches or, increasingly, corporate and individual donors.
     And yet, there’s a directory that claims to be able, with some accuracy, to say how many of us there are. 
    I guess that’s fine. If nothing else, it helps people who are traveling (and don’t have internet access?) to figure out where they can find a church that will probably look and sound something like theirs. But how do the publishers know which churches are “ours” and which aren’t? By the name? There are some Churches of Christ that, for instance, use instrumental music. (Most of “us” don’t.) By our more distinctive practices? Then we’d need to include some other groups, even if we’re only talking about our most distinctive ones. 
     I know, I’m kind of being disingenuous. There are undoubtedly a number of criteria that the publishers use to distinguish “us” from “them.” And, in fairness, they’re not doing it for the purpose of judgment. Just for the purpose of naming “us,” as opposed to others.
     In other words, for the purpose of denomination. (That’s what the word means, after all.)
     Paul, writing to a church that was divided into groups that favored this teacher or that preacher, said that the problem they had was going “beyond what was written” to judge and attribute motives and try to win praise. They were “puffed up” by being, they thought, more “right” than those others. “What do you have that you didn’t receive?” he asks. Something that we should ask whenever we feel the denominational spirit rising in us.
     It seems so right, sometimes, to point out others’ flaws and shortcomings. We’re like Jesus’ first disciples, reassuring him that they had shut down an unauthorized exorcism. After all, the brand has to be protected, right? Can’t have folks who haven’t been vetted running around kicking the devil’s rear end. What if they don’t see eye to eye with us on how many cups you use for Communion, or whether it’s OK to sing Chris Tomlin songs?
     But Jesus tells us exactly what he thinks about that kind of denominationalism: “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.” The Jesus movement was never intended to be institutional. It was certainly never intended to break apart along the fault lines we’ve created with our pride and arrogance. It is Jesus who draws us together, not human reflection on and interpretations of the things he did and said. As Christians, we follow Christ, and others who do the same are our sisters and brothers, whether we agree with them on some of the specifics or not. 
     And there is room for dissimilarity and even disagreement in God’s spacious kingdom. I believe, for instance,  that baptism is for believers, and that it’s by immersion. I’ve argued with other Christians over that very thing but that doesn’t make them less Christian. I think they’re wrong about that particular issue, but I’ve been wrong before as well, and there’s a slight chance I might be again, and I don’t think that puts me out of reach of God’s grace. So shouldn’t I give someone else the same latitude? What do I have that I haven’t received from the limitless stores of God’s grace and love? Why would I ever imagine that someone else shouldn’t receive it as well?
     Denominationalism only benefits those who hold power. It sees the growth of another group of Jesus followers as loss for its own. To a denominationalist, the kingdom of God is a zero-sum game. God’s grace and love have limits, and they are exactly equivalent to the boundaries of his denomination. 
     So my fellowship of churches in America is losing members. I’m sorry about that, and I want to do what I can to solve it. But there are churches in America, some of them in my fellowship and some outside, that are growing, and I’m thankful for that, even if I sometimes think that they might be compromising some important things to do so. Church attendance is on the rise in South America, India, and Africa. I can see that as a loss for the American church, or for my particular brand of church. Or I can see it as a gain for the Kingdom of God. And, begging your pardon if you think differently, I think that’s exactly what I’ll do.

     Whoever is not against us is for us. I think I’ll trust Jesus’ word on that one. The Devil rallies enough opposition to God’s work already; let’s not create it for ourselves. The church can splinter and divide into increasingly irrelevant bits over increasingly irrelevant disputes. Or, we can learn who our allies are, learn from each other, and take the good news of Jesus to a world that increasingly doesn’t know it.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Ugly

   Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do,  yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul… that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
    I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you…. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
-Philemon 8-16 (NIV)


A typical 17-year-old in many ways, ten years ago Lizzie Velasquez was procrastinating from her studies, surfing online, watching some videos. She came upon a video with over 4 million views and, probably without giving it a lot of thought, clicked on it. The video was titled “The World’s Ugliest Woman.”
    Whatever she expected to see, she did not see it.
    She saw herself.
    Literally. The video was a few seconds of…her, posted apparently by a school acquaintance. And then there were the comments. Thousands of comments, most of them ugly and hurtful, unspeakable, unrepeatable. She reported the video to YouTube, hoping to have it removed for violation of terms of service, and received threats from the original poster.
     “When I saw it, my whole world just felt like it crashed at that moment,” she said recently. “I thought, how in the world can I ever pick myself up from this?”
    She said that, by the way, in an interview she gave People magazine. Just ahead of the SXSW premiere of a documentary called A Brave Heart. A documentary about her.
    Wonder if the poster of that video, or any of its thousands of commenters, ever had a documentary made about them?
    Lizzie, by way of background, was born with a syndrome so rare that there isn’t even a name for it. No matter what she eats, or how much, she can’t gain weight at all. She has 0 percent body fat, and at 26 years old has never weighed more than 64 pounds. Her bones break simply because there’s no fat to cushion them. She’s blind in one eye, and her sight in the other is compromised. And, yes, her appearance can be a little shocking.
    Lizzie is far from ugly, however.
    She has great faith in God. She’s full of joy and kindness and gratitude. She is, incredibly, not angry about her situation, nor about the bullying she’s had to endure her whole life. She says that if she met whoever posted the video, she’d hug them for helping to bring out of her something she didn’t know was there. It certainly helped to launch her new career as a motivational speaker and anti-bullying crusader.
    Oh, yes, that’s what she does now.  
    She started by posting her own YouTube videos: inspirational words, daily updates, even makeup tips. (Think about that one for a moment!) Then she gave a TEDx talk that wound up going viral. Almost 7.5 million views.
    Remember, her “World’s Ugliest Woman” video only had 4 million.
    Lizzie has written 2 books about bullying, with a third coming. And now her movie is coming out.
    We throw words around so carelessly, words like “ugly” or “useless” or “worthless” or “stupid.” We throw them around because we’re insecure, or irritated, or angry, or just thoughtless. Our world makes it easy to judge people at a glance, to write them off based on fleeting impressions and incomplete understanding. But every one of those people is God’s creation, loved by him, and, as far as he is concerned, full of potential. They can be all he intended them to be. He has made sure of it.
    Paul’s friend Onesimus, once thought of as useless, was recognized as useful when seen in a new light. The man Philemon would have ordinarily regarded as just a runaway slave was, from a different perspective, his family, his brother. And the new light, the different perspective, was Jesus.
    Give him some room, and Jesus will change white people or black people into brothers and sisters in Christ. He’ll change people you might ordinarily dismiss as “illegals” into fellow-citizens of his kingdom. Let him have his way and he’ll change estranged spouses into lovers, enemies into friends, adversaries into allies. He’ll give old people the energy and idealism of youth, and give young people the wisdom of age. He’ll change ugly into beautiful, useless into useful, slave into free person.
    And the changes he makes are just as likely to be to your heart as to other people.
    Because of Jesus, there is no one beyond hope, or redemption, or reclamation, and when we write someone off, make no mistake, it’s an act of faithlessness. It denies the power of God to transform that person, and it closes off part of our hearts and minds to his work.
    For that same reason, we must always be willing to see ourselves through the eyes of God’s grace and love. Often we throw around the words we do because we believe them to be true of ourselves. We call someone ugly because we believe, deep down, that we are too. We dismiss someone as useless because that’s what we’ve come to think about ourselves.
    But, oh, if only we could see how beautiful we are to our God, beneath all the scars, beneath the way his image has been warped in us. He sees, though. If only we could imagine the ways he can use us to partner with him in his work in our world. If only we could see ourselves as he does, then words like “useless” and “ugly” would never cross our lips again.
    So may we see others as God sees them: not without fault, but not without hope, either. And may we see ourselves in the same way, knowing that in spite of our faults our God knows our true beauty, and in Jesus has made it possible for us to show it to the world.
    For women and men like us, who are sometimes made to feel ugly by the world, that’s the best of news.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Betrothed

     I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband,  to Christ, so that I might present you  as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning,  your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached,  or if you receive a different spirit  from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel  from the one you accepted, you put up with it  easily enough.
-2 Corinthians 11:2-4 (NIV) 


Everyone says you don’t use math again when you get out of school. A man in northern India might have a different opinion about that today.
     The unidentified man was in the middle of his wedding ceremony this week when his bride-to-be in the arranged marriage, suspecting she had been misled by the groom and his family about his educational background, asked him what 15 + 6 was. The surprised groom answered 17, and the bride walked out. Walked out of her own wedding ceremony. Because her husband-to-be couldn’t add 15 and 6. 
     There may be some wives reading this who are wishing now they had asked their husbands a couple of questions during their own wedding (“How do you clean a bathroom?” “Where are the washer and dryer located?” “Do you know how to start a lawn mower?”). But to cancel your own wedding because of the groom’s math skills? I suppose, though, in fairness, her complaint was more that she’d been misled about his education level. 
     I suppose, for some people, one husband is as good as another.
     The New Testament compares Jesus and the church to a husband and his wife more than once. That’s probably because the same comparison is made in the Old Testament between God and Israel. It works for a couple of reasons. For one, it suggests the kind of love God has for his people. For another, it reminds his people that we have to be faithful, that our relationship is disrupted when we choose to love something else more. So when Israel served other gods, it was like breaking marriage vows. And when the church wanders away, in belief or practice, from the good news of Jesus, it’s like a wife betraying a faithful, loving husband.
     There’s a sense, though, in which the “marriage” of Jesus and the church hasn’t taken place yet. The engagement has happened, the plans are set, the invitations are sent and the reception is ready, but the marriage isn’t official until Jesus returns. That’s what Paul’s thinking of in 2 Corinthians — a church for whom he’s responsible when Jesus comes, a church in danger of forgetting her husband and uniting herself with something and someone else. Paul wants to be able to give this church away proudly to the Lord on that day. He’s afraid, though, that when Christ comes he’ll find a church that hasn’t been faithful. He’s afraid that by then the church  will have long abandoned devotion to the Jesus that was preached to them in the gospel and taken up with some other Jesus, some different spirit, some alternative gospel.
      “For you,” he says, “one husband seems to be as good as another.”
     We live in a world that says, basically, that religion is interchangeable. Whatever your convictions may be, so this philosophy says, they’re just your perspective, or the perspective of your family or culture or whatever, on an ultimate and ultimately unknowable Truth. All religions are just aspects of this truth, then, and none are inherently better than any other.
     While it’s certainly good to remember that none of us have God all figured out, Jesus makes something of a different claim about himself. Part of the Christian faith says that Jesus is unique, a revelation of God like none before or since. So the gospel, the story of Jesus, is always our story. And it’s decidedly different than other stories.
     It’s been said that the church now lives in a post-denominational world, and in part I believe it. Few Christians today could articulate — or would in fact care about — the differences in belief and practice between, say, the Methodists and the Lutherans. That’s good in a lot of ways. It helps us get back to the story that makes us who we are — the gospel. It helps us to see that many of the historical differences between denominations really had more to do with how the story was told, and what was emphasized, and how it was adapted to the world around us. 
     On the other hand, this post-denominational world has made it as easy as ever for people to proclaim other Jesuses, other gospels, other stories and get a hearing.
     We have been betrothed to Christ, and our lives and beliefs should bear witness to our faithfulness to him. There will be plenty of would-be suitors who’ll try to win us away to other gospels, other philosophies, even to imitations of Jesus himself. On the one hand will be those who will say it doesn’t matter if we believe in Jesus or not, or who don’t spend much time focused on Jesus at all. On the other hand will be those who tell us that only their limited perspective on Jesus, their narrow little gospel, is the right one. Some will tell us his resurrection and second coming are a figment of the primitive church’s hopeful imagination. Some will tell us that when he comes he’s looking for a sign on the door, or a specific understanding of Communion, or a particular translation of the Bible, or a strict definition of biblical inerrancy. Some will allure us with promises of wealth and prosperity, political power, even world peace. Some will urge us to be stricter in lifestyle, harsher in judgment, more sectarian in our beliefs. 
     Whatever, the answer is to remember the One to Whom we’re betrothed.
     What every false gospel has in common is that it comes apart when held up next to the real one. The way to identify imitation Jesuses is to compare him with the real one. It doesn’t take a theological degree, or a book contract, or a large following. It just takes us knowing Jesus. 
     So may our churches lift him up in worship, in liturgy, and in teaching. May our lives reflect him, may our words and actions imitate his. May we reflect on him in quiet moments, speak to him frequently, speak of him often, and love him more. May we give him thanks for choosing us. And may we be found faithful when he comes to take us home.


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