Who Will Teach Us How?

27 05 2018

The civilized, cultural Christianity of our grandparents taught us that it is not proper to be angry at God. He’s perfect, we’re sinners.  If bad stuff happens to us, we recognize that we deserved it and we thank the Lord it wasn’t worse.  Fortunately, biblical Christianity is not civilized.  Exhibit A, Psalm 88–


O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?  Why do you hide your face from me?  Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.  Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me.  They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together.  You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;  my companions have become darkness.


Holy Bible with cross

And yes, the psalm ends on that very happy and bright note!  This is not, necessarily, a healthy relationship between the psalmist and his God.  I take some comfort in this, while also realizing this is not the final word in Scripture.  In Psalm 88 we only get a snippet of a long, arduous conversation.


Since becoming a young adult, I have had a long discussion (really an argument) with God– the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And yes, I’ve argued with all three of them!  The angry question I throw at the Lord is this: “Why can’t I do it?!  Why can’t I be even partially consistent in my spiritual life?  Why can’t I overcome sin, bad attitudes, bad thoughts, bad actions, and a generally whiney demeanor?  You insist that I be holy but you don’t seem to help me and you don’t tell me HOW?!”


I have tried many, if not all, of the answers that Christians great and small have given to this angst filled question of mine:


  • I need to rely more on God’s grace and less on my effort
  • I need to try harder and exercise more will power– put into practice a better method, or read the right books, attend the right seminar, or change denominations.
  • I need to get over it!  I’m going to be a sinner until I die, just trust in God’s grace and move on.  (Thank you, Martin Luther!  Simul justus, et peccator, “simultaneously justified and a sinner”)
  • I need an “accountability partner” who will meet with me regularly to make sure I’m not continuing to do sinful acts (and I have to admit to him when I do sin).
  • I need to get to the root of my heart-wounds and sins and allow Jesus to heal them, and then I will have victory in my life.
  • I need to read my bible more, pray more, give to the poor, fast, and sell all my possessions.
  • I need a better interpretation of the Bible that helps me see that when Jesus told us to “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”, he was speaking metaphorically.

Martin Luther

More could be added to this list.  And I’m not saying that everything in that list is worthless.  But, none of them have worked to help me actually overcome my bursts of anger, my bouts of selfishness, my slouching into depression, my succumbing to sin.


Why?!  Why is this the case?!  Why doesn’t the Bible, somewhere, spell out in painful detail the process to overcome sinful habits, and destructive attitudes?!  This seems, really, really important!!  Why are there no explicit “how to” portions in Scripture that walk me, step by step, into exactly what I need to do to stop sinning, and to stop letting anger or lust or bitterness or selfishness control my life!  Holiness for Dummies


I can’t overemphasize how big this is, and how much this has caused serious problems with my relationship with God.  The truth is, not being able to do what Jesus commanded, has caused the most serious challenges to my faith during my relatively short life.  And yes, I do label it a crisis of faith that I have experienced from time to time.


I also feel alone in this.  Again, this is huge!! Why aren’t more of my Christian friends frustrated by the gap between the clear teaching of Scripture and their actual behavior and internal attitudes? (“Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”  Really?  I go to bed angry plenty!) The most I hear from the pulpit is that we all struggle and we should help each other.  Really!?  That’s all I get?!   I don’t even get a Sunday school class with the title, “7 steps to holy living”?   And as far as I’m concerned (see my previous two posts) this is THE thing the church should be concerning itself with the most, above everything else–  teaching, instructing and demonstrating how to live as Jesus instructed.


Instead, my denomination is mostly concerned with church planting and getting unsaved people “saved.”  Yes, I am fully cognizant that I sound like a raving, insane heretic in challenging this.  I love the fact that my denomination wants to start new churches in order to reach those the church has ignored or forgotten about.  Of course that’s part of the Great Commission.  But what about the “teaching them to…” part of that same Great Commission?  Recently, in reading my denomination’s periodical,  I saw a lot of excitement about evangelism and church planting, and almost nothing about what we should do with these new Christians once they start coming to the church.  It is my perception (which I’m sure is flawed) that most local churches believe that if we can just get the “lost” to say yes to Jesus, the rest just takes care of itself.  If I’m wrong about this, then why is outreach and church planting so much more prominent than programs and processes that train believers in the ways and attitudes of Christlikeness?

Holiness 101

Now look, I’m sure there are local churches out there doing yeoman’s work in the area of spiritual formation, etc.  But that work does not get lifted up and shouted about by the denomination.  What is touted are those churches who change and become more “outward” focused, and experience numerical growth.  The emphasis is “success” as generally defined by the culture.   Our God is a big God and he uses all of this to advance his Kingdom.  So, I’m not trying to argue that such evangelistic efforts are a waste of time or unbiblical.  I’m saying they are out of proportion with the clear and unconfusing directives of the New Testament.  Jesus did not make it overly complicated when he said, “Make disciples:  baptize them into the reality of the Trinity, and instruct them how to do all that I have commanded.”   Why are most of our current efforts only implementing the first half of the Great Commission?


I promise, I’m not naïve, and I fully realize that churches which are primarily “inward” focused, and have a lot of bible studies, prayer services, and the like, are also not really training each other how to actually do what needs to be done to be holy.  I myself have failed in this way too.  I’ve taught Sunday school classes on prayer, and had some really great discussions that we all felt really good about.  But we never really got around to the business of prayer itself.  (I’ve also been part of a church that talked about prayer, but then turned the Sunday night service into a time of focused intercessory prayer.  We witnessed God move through that work.)


My point is that both “inward” and “outward” focused congregations are missing the boat on that second part of the Great Commission.  And I desperately need a community of believers right now who takes it seriously and will start to work to train themselves and others to do what Jesus said.  After all, what sort of spiritual life are we bringing new believers into if we don’t give them some help, instruction and training in how to overcome sinful habits and destructive attitudes?  Otherwise, church becomes a club, and not a training center for the Kingdom of God.


Time to set aside the rant and get practical.  What is the solution?  What am I supposed to be doing so I can overcome the desires of the flesh, and consistently walk in the Holy Spirit with Jesus at my side, and the Father’s love filling my life?  And I point out again that the New Testament does not outline for us the specific regimen that we need to put into practice.  Sure, Paul will say, “put to death what is earthly in you. . . . And put on . . .compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. . . .”  (Colossians 3: 5 & 12).  Apostle PaulYes, O Great Apostle, that is very good advice, and I love it!  But HOW?!!!!  What concrete steps must I take to actually put to death “impurity and evil desire”?  The Bible remains painfully quiet in this respect, and I can’t help but wonder why this is so.  And since I believe in the Divine inspiration of the Scriptures, I can only conclude that this omission was intentional.


Paul and Peter and John purposely were not inspired by God to give specific, 1, 2, 3, steps to holiness.  I’m sure this was in part because as time and culture changed, specific practices would not easily translate and the “old ways” would quickly become a legalistic religion.  But, there has to be more to it than that.  And I believe the answer is within the Great Commission itself.  Jesus commands his disciples to be about the business of “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  The word “teaching” really has little to do with Modern notions of education, where eager pupils sit in neat rows and give their rapt attention to the master lecturer at the front of the room.  This sort of teaching (as much as I enjoy it) is merely the passing on of info and data.  This is a million miles away from what Jesus had in mind when he spoke these words.


What did he mean by “teaching”?  Well, just read the Gospel of Matthew and you will see.  Yes, he often sat down and spoke to his “students” about the Kingdom. But he also demonstrated the Kingdom by casting out demons, healing the sick, and calling disciples to “follow” him (in other words, to imitate what they saw him doing and saying). Lastly, the Master sent his apprentices out two by two, into the surrounding villages to teach and do the exact same things Jesus had taught and showed them himself.  This is a proper education in the school of Jesus the Messiah!  And this is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he uttered the words of the Great Commission– his disciples were to verbally instruct, show by demonstration, and finally send out the new recruits to actually do what they had heard and seen. (Also note that the disciples came back and reported to Jesus all they had done in his name.)  This is a system of apprenticeship, and this is far removed from how we do “discipleship” in the early decades of the 21st Century.


God did not inspire specific, step-by-step instructions because he wanted his people to work on this together in community, and not in isolation.  If it was all spelled out in the New Testament, I could just stay at home and follow the steps without recourse to being part of a community of faith.  Evangelicals will not like what I say next:  This means the Bible alone is not sufficient for full salvation leading to a holy life.  We must rely on one another for the training necessary to grow in grace and to actually stop sinning and having unholy attitudes.  We will have to submit to the wisdom of those who have gone before us on this path, while also adapting their instruction to the particular terrain of our own time and culture.  Sola Scriptura only works if the Bible is intentionally made the Church’s Bible and the people who are the Church work together to help one another actually do what Jesus instructed.


Recently, I was reading about a church in North America whose practice in Spiritual Formation was this:  before coming to Communion congregants were strongly encouraged to meet with their priest for Confession (obviously, this was not a Protestant or Evangelical church).  When the priest noted a persistent sin or unholy attitude in a person’s life, he directed him or her to a nearby monastery where each member of his church was assigned to a monk who became a spiritual director. In every instance of spiritual direction, the monk would give specific practices and exercises for the church member to do.  More often than not, these exercises seemed unconnected to the particular sin the person was failing to overcome. But for those who stuck with the assigned regimen, significant progress was made in their efforts to defeat sin.


This makes me think of the original “Karate Kid” movie.  The Sensei, Mr. Miyagi began his instruction of his teenage student (who just wanted to learn Karate so he could beat up the bullies at school) by having him paint the fence and house, sand the deck, and wax the car.  Of course, Daniel, the teenager, gets fed up with feeling like Mr. Miyagi’s Karate Kidslave.  He turns in a huff to walk away from his instructor when Mr. Miyagi calls him back and has him demonstrate with his arms and hands, “sand the floor” and “wax on, wax off”, “paint the fence”, and “paint the house”.  All of these motions end up being very effective blocking techniques against incoming punches and kicks. The repetitive motions of seemingly unrelated work, were actually creating muscle memory of the most fundamental defensive moves in martial arts.


I have come to believe that something similar needs to be the starting point for those wanting to defeat persistent sins in their lives.  If a person has spent the last 20 years giving in to the sin of lust (or greed, or pride, or fill-in-the blank), it is worse than discouraging to simply tell that person to stop sinning by will power and to keep up his daily “devotions”.  You will teach that believer that he is either an abject failure in the Christian life, or that God’s grace is not sufficient. Ingrained habits cannot be undone by simply ratcheting up more will-power, or by speaking more spiritual platitudes like, “let go, and let God.”  Serious effort and training must be entered into for the long haul, setting aside the need for instantaneous results.  The “student” must trust her instructor that regular fasting will somehow help in the defeat of anger, greed and lust.


The bottom line:  I cannot just wake up one day and decide to stop yelling when I get angry.  I will fail, 100% guaranteed.  But I might actually be able to build into my daily routine, 20 minutes of silence and solitude in which I meditate on a single verse of Scripture.  And I have to be patient to allow that seed to bear fruit in its time– not mine or the world’s!  But more fundamentally, I need to be in a community that not only encourages this sort of training, but actually offers it and sees it as vital to the health and mission of the community.


Please church, I’m begging you, for my sake and yours.  Stop trying to impress the world with standards of success that it has set from its own, corrupted brokenness.  Instead, listen more carefully to Jesus and start putting time, people, money and resources towards actually carrying out both halves of the Great Commission.  If Evangelical churches cannot do this, they should not be upset when those who attend their churches go looking elsewhere– hopefully to other more ancient branches of Christianity, but maybe to other religions and spiritualties altogether! Our churches may be growing in number now, but what will they look like in 50 years if the people in them are not intentionally trained in the ways of Jesus?


God’s Grace, Our Fight

19 05 2018

What is the family for?  Why does it exist?  Is it to provide a sense of belonging and safety to each individual member?  Or is its purpose merely biological–as in the purpose of the family system is to ensure the survival of the human species?  If this was the ultimate reason, I would think we could find more efficient ways to propagate human kind.  Or, as our current age is asking, is the family really all that important as traditionally defined?  If our human relationships are primarily about self-fulfillment and self-actualization, then we should be allowed to define and use “family” as we see fit.  (By the way, in case you haven’t noticed, the traditional family has been suffering under a withering attack by cultural elites for the last 50 plus years.  So I worry that my analogy which follows may not translate well in the current time and place that I live).

Train up a child

What if the purpose of the family is to raise up the next generation?  I mean this in much more than a survival way of thinking.  As Proverbs has it, the purpose of a family is to train up a child in the way that he should go (22:6).  A family exists, as it does, to ensure that the next generation can do more than survive.  A family trains up its children to be good, brave, self-sacrificing and maybe even virtuous, so that the future world is a place for human flourishing, rather than suffering and strife.  I’m afraid our culture is now paying the price of failing to do exactly this, in numbers too great to overcome with simple law-making  and law enforcing.


Note that even families without a clear moral compass instinctively know that they have to pass on some sort of training to their children if they are to have any hope of living decently well later on.  Things like, “Don’t let people take advantage of you,” and “Don’t let that money burn a hole in your pocket,” are attempts to train and raise up a successful next generation.  And here’s the truth we all know but tend to resist:  training a child in the way he should go always involves intentionality and repetition.  My youngest son is now 12 years old, and I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve had to remind him to say “Please” and “Thank You”, and to brush his teeth after breakfast.  As my kids get into their teen years, training becomes more complex and involves a greater investment of time and effort than it did when they were young.  This includes late-night conversations, and having to draw difficult boundaries, while also trying to expand their responsibilities.  And all of this is best done in the context of relationships that are founded on an unyielding love.


Here’s what I’m driving at:  just because we really, really love each other in our family, does not mean that our children will automatically be “trained in the way they should go.”


Swerving back now to the church and spiritual disciplines, we must keep before us the fact that while the church (you and I collectively as believers in Jesus) is rescued by God’s grace in Christ, that grace does not, ipso facto, train us to be able to usher in the Kingdom into ourselves, and into those around us.  Training involves blood, sweat, and tears– and a LOT (I mean a LOT) of boring repetition (should I repeat that?!).

Spiritual Discipline

Before we can proceed with a discussion about the hard, repetitive work of spiritual formation, we need to clear the deck of some rather large obstacles and barriers.  Please don’t immediately cast stones at me as a heretic, but those of us raised in Evangelical churches need to stop dismissing and ignoring the hard work of spiritual discipline out of the fear that we are denying salvation by grace through faith and committing the most horrid of heresies called “works righteousness”.  As in my last post, Dallas Willard helps clear the air so we can see a bit more clearly.  Or, to switch analogies, he helps us set aside our heavily “grace” colored, Evangelical spectacles so that we can see spiritual discipline in a better light.


The following quotes are from his book, “The Great Omission,” which is a collection of his talks on the subject of Discipleship in the church.  All of what comes next is from Willard’s presentation given to a large group of Evangelical pastors and ministry leaders, entitled, “Spiritual Formation in Christ is for the Whole Life and the Whole Person.”  (Yes, this is lengthy, but our misconceptions of how grace and effort should never play together are deep and will take some time to be exposed and removed.)


Dallas Willard on “Grace and Works”  Willard the Great Omission


God is not pushy–for now, in any case.  He is not going to overwhelm you if you don’t want Him.  He gives you the power to put Him out of your mind.  And even if you want Him, you have to seek Him.  Now, I realize that there is a sense in which He is already seeking you, and I am not trying to dispose of that, but we misunderstand what is our part and what is God’s part.  God is ready to act.  He is acting.  We are not waiting on Him, and if it doesn’t hurt your theology too badly, He is waiting on us to respond.  And you know we have a problem here.  As I often point out to folks, today we are not only saved by grace, we are paralyzed by it.  We will preach to you for an hour that you can do nothing to be saved, and then sing to you for forty-five minutes trying to get you to do something to be saved.  That is confusing, to say the least.  We really have a problem with activity and passivity in our theology.  (pg. 57-58)


        Grace and works.  Isn’t “spiritual formation” really just another term for “works”?  Yes, we’re talking about if you mean, “Am I going to have to do something?”  You cannot be a pew potato and simultaneously engage in spiritual formation in Christ’s likeness.  You have to take your whole life into discipleship to Jesus Christ, if that’s what you mean by works.  But on the other hand, nothing works like genuine faith or trust in God.

        Much of our problem is not, as is often said, that we have failed to get what is in our head down in our heart.  Much of what hinders us is that we have had a lot of mistaken theology in our head and is has gotten down into our heart.  And it is controlling our inner dynamics so that the head and heart cannot, even with the aid of the Word and the Spirit, pull one another straight. 

        May I just give you this word?  Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.  Earning is an attitude.  Effort is an action.  Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone.  Many people don’t know this, and that is one major result of the cutting down of the gospel to a theory of justification, which has happened in our time.  I have heard leading evangelical people say that grace has only to do with guilt.  Many people today understand justification as the only essential result of the gospel, and the gospel they preach is–and you will hear this said over and over by the leading presenters of the evangelical faith–that your sins can be forgiven.  That’s it!

        In contrast, I make bold to say, the gospel of the entire New Testament is that you can have new life now in the Kingdom of God if you will trust Jesus Christ. . . .  Become the kind of person who routinely does what Jesus did and said.  You will consume much more grace by leading a holy life than you will by sinning, because every holy act you do will have to be upheld by the grace of God. . . .

        If you preach a gospel that has only to do with the forgiveness of sins, on the other hand, you will be as we are today:  stuck in a position where you have faith over here and obedience and abundance over there, and no way to get from here to there because the necessary bridge is discipleship.  If there is anything we should know by now, it is that a gospel of justification alone does not generate disciples.  Discipleship is a life of learning from Jesus Christ how to live in the Kingdom of God now, as he himself did.  If you want to be a person of grace, then, live a holy life of discipleship, because the only way you can do that is on a steady diet of grace.  Works of the Kingdom live from grace.   (pg. 61-63)


        …baptism in the Spirit, spiritual experiences, high acts of worship, and other experiences of worship do not transform character.  They just don’t do it.  [These spiritual highs] have meant a lot to me, but they have not transformed my character.  . . .

         …Character is formed through action, and it is transformed through action, including carefully planned and grace-sustained disciplines.  To enter the path of obedience to Jesus Christ–intending to obey him and intending to learn whatever I have to learn in order to obey him–is the true path of spiritual formation or transformation. . . .

        …What transforms us is the will to obey Jesus Christ from a life that is one with his resurrected reality day by day, learning obedience through inward transformation. 


Returning to the start of this post (and to the previous post):  What’s a family for?  Answer: To raise up the next generation, training them in the way they should go.  Training always involves persistent, difficult, repetitive effort.  I am saying that family life is a window on how we are to understand the church.  What’s the church for?  To make disciples by bringing folks in close contact with God’s grace in Christ while simultaneously training them in the ways of Jesus in pursuit of a holy, grace-filled existence.  Taking this seriously means changing the way we “do” church.  It means not allowing the culture to define “success”.  And it means hard work, dealing with failure, and extending grace to those who fail and to ourselves when we also fail.


Let’s let Paul bring this home:


From Paul, in Colossians 3:  So if you have been raised with Christ seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth. . . . [How?]  Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly. . . . These are the ways you also once followed. . . . But now you must get rid of all such things.

Put to Death, Paul

Note the words Paul employs here: “seek”, “set your minds”, “put to death”, “get rid”.  Paul also says elsewhere that we need to “put on” heavenly, Kingdom things.  These are all verbs, and verbs are actions.  Paul was not in angst that these strong, violent, and necessary actions might lead believers to that pernicious devil of “works righteousness” and the undoing of being saved by “grace alone”.   In all of Paul’s letters his message is clear:   You are rescued from wrath and hell by grace through faith! Now then,  get up off your bloated sense of self and fight for the Kingdom to grow and deepen, both inside you and outside you.


If we have at least partially blown up this false dichotomy between grace and working hard, then we are ready to talk specific actions.  How do we actually become holy?  There is a time-tested process to it that is highly reliable.  The problem, of course, is that few today actually give it a try for more than a few days or weeks.  But spiritual discipline, to be effective, requires the whole of me– fractions will not do.

Confused Ecclesiology

29 04 2018

What is the church for?  Perhaps this is too broad of a question.  It’s too easy to pontificate on the purpose and mission of the church catholic.  Too much big picture, and not nearly enough specificity.  Perhaps it would be better to ask:  What is the local church for?holy-communion-cross-in-cup


I have the sense that our post-modern, Evangelical understanding of what the church is and does is in a crisis that is reaching a fever pitch.  Without belaboring the point, the impression I get is that virtually all Evangelical churches simply want to be successful in terms that make the most sense to our current, North American culture– that is to be productive and growing.  A successful church, according to  this paradigm, is one that is multiplying it’s “impact” with ministries and community projects, while also growing in weekly attendance and membership.


It doesn’t require a top-notch New Testament scholar to immediately notice that these markers of a successful church sound very out place and foreign when laid next to the book of Acts, or Paul’s letters.  I don’t recall Paul excoriating young Timothy for his church’s lack of numerical growth or lack of services to the poor and marginalized. In other words, our ecclesiastical concerns in 21st century North America, are very much not in sync with the authors of the New Testament.


This discontinuity between present day church life and ancient biblical faith was especially painful to me when I was a pastor.  I really could not get a clear idea of what my role, as pastor, was.  Was I to be the CEO and chief marketing strategist whose sole purpose was to grow my church’s “brand”, and increase the number of “customers” and  “shareholders”?  Was commercial success my main “pastoral” concern– for the sake of the Kingdom?   Or was I mainly to be a priest and shepherd of souls to those with whom I had regular contact?  Or was my main responsibility to be a liaison between my local church and the wider community?  Or again, was I to be mostly an evangelist in the mold of Billy Graham, winning souls with the power of my persuasive speaking?  Or was I supposed to scrap all of that and become a leader raising up leaders who carefully follow Maxwell’s “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” while simultaneously avoiding the “Five Dysfunctions of a Team”?


Look, I’ll be flat out honest that this post is largely a plea for help and a noisy confession that I am beyond confused and probably more than a little disillusioned about the role and function of the church and her ministers.


It doesn’t get any less confusing if I step back and look beyond the borders of Evangelicalism.  Liberal Protestants insist that the church fulfills her purpose through acts of compassion, and campaigning for social justice against the systemic “isms” that constantly war against the marginalized of our world (racism, sexism, genderism, etc.).   Roman Catholics, while doing plenty of their own SJW (Social Justice Warrior) activities, really land on the Sacraments as the center of the church’s life and identity.


071714_0240_TheTablethe5.pngI am most drawn to the sacramental centering of the church’s identity and mission.  My love and study of church history have inexorably drawn me in that direction– I feel most at home in that sort of liturgical ecclesiology.  But, even this only begs more exasperating questions:  What are the sacraments for?  What is their purpose and function within the church?  How does enacting the sacraments give identity to the church and purposeful direction to her many works?


I feel like I’m walking in circles and have now landed in the exact spot I started from.   I still don’t really know what the church is for, or how her ordained leaders are supposed to lead and manage her.   I might soon be ready to start sleeping in on Sunday mornings if this circular journey doesn’t soon break out into new paths (or maybe very old paths that are seldom used in our day).


So, here I am standing on this perpetually circular path, with apathy settling in to my very bones, when suddenly I hear heavy foot-falls of a large man, who is surprisingly quick and instantly upon me.  Without warning I am hoisted into the air and dropped into the icy waters of the nearby river.  This river of Scripture and the Saints, leaves me gasping for air, but also clear headed.  I look up to see that the large man who caused my impromptu bath is Dallas Willard (it’s too bad that Evangelicals do not canonize saints, because Willard fully deserves such for the conduct of his life and the liberating depth of his teaching).


(Side note:  I hope that life in the new heaven and earth include being able to watch and hear great saints in deep dialogue.  I would love to see Willard, Athanasius, Maximos the Confessor and CS Lewis at a heavenly pub discussing a holy life in Christ over a pint of frothy brew!)


Willard had the ability to immerse his readers into the whole reality of God’s kingdom through the tiny portal of single verse of Scripture.  “I keep the Lord always before me; because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved” (Psalm 16:8).   Jesus has brought the Kingdom of heaven to us so that the Trinity can be with us– no longer withholding the grace, power, peace, love, truth and beauty we so desperately need.


The purpose of the church, as Christ’s Bride, is to bring glory to the Trinity by ushering in the reality of the Kingdom into the people and places within her reach.  The church must never cease from bringing all into the reality of God’s nearness, “He is at my right hand” and his redemptive strength, “I shall not be moved”, by training disciples of Jesus how to consistently “keep the Lord always before me.”


The other disparate activities I mentioned above, now have a clear role and objective:   The sacraments are given that we might know the Lord’s intimate nearness.  We see Jesus in the poor we feed and the abused we rescue.  We joyfully proclaim the coming Kingdom and God’s closeness, and seek to draw in those who are currently outside it’s generous borders.  We train up leaders who can do all of these activities as humble, Spirit-filled apprentices of Jesus the King.  And lastly, we lead and manage the affairs of the church with integrity and energy because of the precious nature of the structures that enable Jesus’ disciples to do what he commanded.   052514_0100_ThingsAreNo3.jpg


As Willard puts it:  “…how much of our personal efforts, as well as our ministerial and teaching efforts, are directed toward spiritual transformation in this holistic sense? . . .  I do not know of a denomination or local church in existence that has as its goal to teach its people to do everything Jesus said.  I’m not talking about a whim or a wish, but a plan.  I ask you sincerely, is this on your agenda?  To teach disciples surrounded in the triune reality to do everything Jesus said?”  (The Great Omission, pg. 61).


This begins to bring clarity, for me, to the pastoral role in the life and mission of the church.  Leader, priest, manager, evangelist, liturgist, community liaison — can all have a razor sharp focus as long as I keep the Lord near me, knowing that he is at my right hand and I need not be moved (or confused).   All of these pastoral duties must exist to support the church’s identity as Christ’s bride, who labors tirelessly to show all that God is very near, and to train all who are willing in those activities that enable Jesus’ disciples to be more and more full of God and eager to do all that Jesus did and taught.


This brings other clarity as well:  if I as a pastor, or the church as a whole, are doing things just to be noticed and seen as “cool”, or to draw a crowd or to be viewed as being on the correct side of the political divide, then I and we are suffering from amnesia.  We have forgotten and set aside our true identity and role as apprentices of Jesus the Master redeemer of all things.  There are too many broken and spiritually dead folks who have been sitting in our church services for decades who need to see the Lord right beside them.  And there are too many eager ministry leaders in our churches who don’t know the first thing about how to actually do what Jesus commanded them to do.  They don’t have any tools or know-how to stop lying, lusting, stealing, murdering (in their hearts), coveting, hating, and just sinning in general.  No one has trained them in the ways of Jesus.  And that is only the surface of the neediness of those who are already “in” the church.  If they don’t know how to overcome sin and be holy like Jesus was holy, how will they be able to teach those who are nominally Christian or those who are “lost” outside the Kingdom’s borders?  What a mess!  Clueless disciples of Jesus trying to “win” and evangelize non-Christians!  We don’t have time or resources to be pursuing anything other than the genuine, whole-life transformation of those within our reach.


Without very careful attentiveness “church” becomes about something else– whatever we can grasp with our own two hands that will make sense of our mission, and enable us to build something we can manage and control within our own power.  Many models and examples now lie before us:  contemporary worship, leadership training, numerical growth, building campaigns, community organizing, feeding the poor, racial reconciliation, youth ministry– on and on the list could go.  None of these things, by themselves, is somehow anti-Gospel, but when any one of them are lifted up to the level of the church’s main identity and purpose, it simply is idolatry.  Even “spiritual” activities such as prayer, bible study, worship and fasting, if isolated from the big picture of the Kingdom of heaven, can become stumbling blocks to the church trying  to step up into her full and rightful place and identity.  If we are a “praying” church, let it be because we know how much we need the power of the Holy Spirit to actually live out what Jesus commanded, and not because that is our church’s “brand” in our local ecclesiastical market.  (And why would a group of people boast that they are a “praying” church?  If there is no prayer, there can be no church in the first place!)


I fear that most (if not all) of our current efforts to make the church more “effective” and “missional” are leading us down the yellow-brick road to the Emerald City where we will find only a mere human behind the curtain, rather than a powerful God who is close to hand, whom we can keep always before us because there are time-tested practices and habits that make it so.  More on the Spiritual Disciplines in the next post….


Worship as Prayer

27 10 2014

The first “contemporary” worship service I attended was at Willow Creek in the early 1990’s. I was in college and, in fact, attendance was part of a class assignment for a course on church growth. And even in those days when I possessed extensive ignorance in the areas of ecclesiology and liturgy, I noticed the distinct lack of prayer in the service. When discussing this in the classroom, it was argued this was intentional because it was a “seeker” service. The more intensive “praying” took place in small groups throughout the week. There were just too many non-Christians in the Sunday services to warrant the use of the very Christian act of prayer.


Setting aside, for now, the pros and cons of using Sunday “worship” services as the main evangelistic tool of the church, it must be pointed out that churches like Willow Creek influenced the way thousands of churches conducted their worship services in North America (and now, the world). Which means this lack of prayer in the main service has now become common-place in “contemporary” worship services in country, small town, suburban and urban congregations. When I sit through these sort of services (and sitting is about all that the “audience” gets to do, except standing to sing) I increasingly feel like I have been to some kind of a show that may be distantly related to Christian worship, but does not quite pull-off the real deal.


The truth is painful (and controversial) but it must be said and repeated: most of our Evangelical “contemporary” worship services would be unrecognizable to believers from Justin Martyr to John Wesley. The lack of a distinct and unified prayer of the people of God is an immense contributor to this very lamentable reality.


This lack of prayer in our “worship” services has, I believe, been a major impetus for the many prayer movements that have experienced dynamic growth in the last 20 years (The International House of Prayer, IHOP, comes immediately to mind– and while, on the one hand, IHOP takes “contemporary” worship forms to a new extreme with 24/7 worship music lead by a band; on the other hand, IHOP conceives of every facet of their services as prayer which is much closer to Biblical and historic perspectives of worship).


My concern and anger are piqued because most of Evangelicalism’s fastest growing churches are training Christians that prayer is either a minor component of Christian practice or it is something best left to the paid professionals. There may be a prayer here and there, and the pastor may pray, but when do God’s people learn how to pray as individuals, much less as a cohesive whole?


Hence my preference for ancient liturgies, East and West, and the emphasis on the worship service as the unified prayer of God’s people– a service that is prayer from start to finish. But Evangelicals, by and large, dismiss these prayers as wrote and unreal because they are not prayed from the heart. How can they be since they are just printed words mouthed in unison? But my rebuttal is based on the didactic importance of prayer: how can the heart, or mind, pray well when it has never been invited into the Church’s prayer life that has been going on for 3,000 plus years (going back to the Psalms)? Old and New Testament followers of God prayed written prayers as one. And so did Christians for the vast majority of Church history. How is it that some of us now know better or have graduated to a higher level than the giants of the faith who have gone before us?


I’m afraid we place too much emphasis on “heart-felt” emotional prayers and not enough on serious corporate prayer that forms and shapes those who join their voices to it into Christ-like, living sculptures. In fact, if our extemporaneous, “heart-felt” prayers too often seem inane, shallow and self-focused, we need not look far for one of the main culprits. Written, corporate prayers are not meant to replace other forms of prayer, but to breath life, vibrancy and depth into them. Our own time tends to pit written and extemporaneous forms prayer against one another– making them mutually exclusive. But they are meant, and have been used as such down through the millennia, to be the right and left lungs of the prayer life of God’s people. We dare not keep the Holy Spirit on a short leash by using only one prayer form to the utter neglect of the other.

Please take these following paragraphs from the late Robert Webber with the weight and seriousness they deserve. If we are no longer praying God’s story for the sake of the world, we are no longer Christ’s body or bride. We’re just another association with faded semblances to a vibrant Christian heritage. (What follows is from his final book: Ancient-Future Worship)


The first crisis of public prayer is its neglect. By neglect I do not mean to suggest that congregational worship has no prayer within it. Indeed, most if not all churches will do prayers. They may begin and end with prayer. A prayer may be said before a sermon or at its ending; intercessory prayers may be made for the sick, for shutins, for the needs of the congregation, local city, country, and even for the world (however, many contemporary churches do not have a place for intercessory prayer). What I speak of here as the neglect of prayer is the failure to conduct all of worship as the prayer of the church for the life of the world.

This failure to grasp all of worship as a cosmic prayer has several underlying causes. The first and, I believe, most fundamental reason why worship is not seen as prayer is the failure to grasp that corporate prayer arises from the story of God. We think of corporate prayers as arising within ourselves. Yet the story of God . . .is the story of the world and of human existence. Worship prays this story. But this thought and the application of this thought for the content and structure of worship is neglected simply because it is unheard of by many.

A second reason why worship is not seen as the prayer of God’s people for the world is because worship has been turned into a program. Worship, influenced by broadcast communication theories of the media revolution, has become an entertaining presentation. The commitment to worship “programming” has been intensified by the contemporary Christian music industry. Because people are drawn by entertainment, showmanship, and celebrity, many local churches have turned to a presentational worship to attract the masses.

Consequently, the nature of worship has shifted from corporate prayer to platform presentational performance. Worship, instead of being a rehearsal of God’s saving actions in the world and for the world, is exchanged for making people feel comfortable, happy, and affirmed. Worship, no longer the public prayer of God’s people, becomes a private and individual experience. Beneath the privatization of worship is the ever-present individualism of our culture. This focus on the self results in prayers that are concerned with my life, my needs, my desires–prayers that seem indifferent to the needs of the poor and the problem of violence and war that devours nations and societies and ignore the works of God in Christ to bring to an end all evil, death, and sin. . . .

Worship as public prayer may be described as follows: “Public prayer lifts up all creation to the Father through Jesus Christ by the Spirit in praise and thanksgiving for the work of the Son, who has reconciled creatures and creation to God.” Because this is what the public prayer of the church does, the story of God is the substance of the inner content that shapes the outer form of public prayer. Worship prays God’s story.



Paul instructs the churches in Philippi, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The “your” here is second person plural. This is a corporate activity flowing from and resting on the accomplished work of Christ Jesus. The prayers we pray when we gather for worship need to more intentionally unite us into the true story of Jesus. Written, responsorial, and Eucharistic prayers are indispensible for this task.

Pasta Bowl Worship

26 05 2014

I love pasta. In fact, I love all sorts of pasta: linguine, fettuccini, penne, spaghetti, bow-tie, and even good old fashioned “elbow noodles.” I even really enjoy different types of sauces: marinara, alfredo, traditional, and many others (as long as they don’t contain big chucks of veggies!). And toppings too! Meatballs, grilled chicken, ground beef, (I’m still not sure about seafood…). But something I do not like, is pasta all by itself. It is the combination of pasta, sauce and meat that make it a meal– a great tasting meal.

I am concerned that too many of our worship services are like bowls of plain pasta, without the other ingredients. Now, it is true that pasta by itself is still food that will provide the human body with some needed nutrients. My wife and daughter sometimes have pasta with just a little butter and it is enough. But most of the time they also crave flavor, protein and vegetables (the last item I personally do not have much interest in!). But a bowl of unadorned pasta would be poor fare day in and day out. There are many millions around the world who subsist on rice as their daily diet. Maybe one or two times a year they get to top that rice with other things, but it is a rare treat. Does this diet keep them alive? Yes, it does. Are they able to thrive and flourish? Not so much. Without vitamins and nutrients that come from other varieties of food, those who have access to only rice have poor or fragile health.

Many millions of Christians subsist on weekly offerings of pasta bowl worship. There is singing, there is preaching, there is some prayer, but the “meat” and the “sauce” of Word and Table are meager, rare, and all too often, poorly prepared.

I have heard and read about Evangelical leaders who say something like, “Why do we need to have multiple Scripture readings and weekly Communion, when thousands flock to our churches, get saved, and have transformed lives without it?!” I accept this as a good point not lightly swept aside. Such is surely evidence of the power of the Cross and the Holy Spirit. It cannot be said that those who worship with “simple pasta” are somehow un-Christian or will fail to make it to heaven. Not even Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox make such a claim. I believe it is the difference between simple subsistence and a well-rounded diet.

I realize the analogy with the pasta and rice is not without flaws as I am employing it.* However, it helps me explain why I think the ancient worship pattern of weekly Word and Table is so very important even though millions of Christians seem to get along just fine without it. To me it is the difference between getting by, on the one hand, and really living, on the other. It is the difference between possessing a part verses embracing the whole.

I have also noticed that those churches who make little use of Word and Table, the “meat and sauce”, find other substitutes. Every local church and denomination that does not make the Word and Sacraments central in their worship, will fill that slot with other things. And those other things, in time, become central to those believers: emotion-laded songs (contemporary and traditional), scholarly or emotional preaching, ecstatic prayer experiences, missions (foreign & domestic), social and political issues, even doctrinal distinctives.

Let me be clear! There is great value in every item on that list, and not one is bad or sinful. Not one of them, however, is meant to be central. God is meant to be the focus and center of our worship. And when we keep Scripture and the Sacraments central we have a time tested means of keeping God, and all His saving works in Christ through the Holy Spirit, central. (By the way, “preaching” is not the same as keeping Scripture central, because preaching is human comment and explanation of Scripture. To make preaching central is to dance the near the precipice of idolatry. The same is very much true of music and singing in our services).

I am no fool (usually) and I’m not too terribly naïve. I am fully aware that Scripture and the Sacraments are, #1, not a fool-proof way to keep God central in our worship gatherings. There are some liturgical traditions that have so many layers of words and actions that Christ in His church is obscured. Fortunately, there has been a “clearing of the decks” in the last 50 years with much positive liturgical renewal. And #2, I am painfully aware that the Bible and Communion have been sources of idolatry at various times and places within church history. In other words, some have become so enraptured with the symbol (which truly does participate with Divine reality, by the way), that they no longer see the real thing the symbol is trying to point them to. (For the Bible, think sola scriptura, or King James only; for Communion think keeping the consecrated bread on reserve in little tabernacles, or when lay folk are discouraged from receiving the elements on a regular basis).

Throughout church history, again and again, Word and Table have rescued God’s people from heresy and self-centeredness. But for this to happen in our day, we desperately need to employ the following sorts of things (as quickly as it can be tolerated, as church-folk are lovingly taught their importance):

  • Multiple Scripture readings every Sunday. And preferably not just ones that fit the pastor’s agenda or desires. Additionally, it is not necessary to comment upon or explain every reading that is made on a given Sunday. However, some time of silence after each reading is in order. Even in liturgical churches, there is the annoying habit of rushing from one reading to the next without time for reflection and contemplation.
  • A much greater use of the Psalms as part of our prayer and praise time.
  • Shorter sermons that allow time for longer uses of Scripture (readings and Psalms), longer times of prayer, and a truly full-orbed celebration of the Lord’s Supper that is not rushed to fit it in before everyone is late for dinner or the ball game.
  • Weekly Communion services. I realize that for most in non-liturgical churches, this is unrealistic– there would be mass mutiny as people fled churches implementing this, only to find or establish congregations where their own preferences are kept in high regard. However, the least we can do to remain obedient to Scripture and faithful to the wise saints who have gone before us, is to offer a weekly Communion service that is separate from the “main” service. But I really do hope that ALL churches will quickly realize that the main service should be celebrating the Eucharist no less than monthly!
  • Communion services that emphasize the fullness of Christ’s accomplished work beyond His atoning death on the cross. Protestants and Evangelicals are inheritors of the, often despised, Medieval church more than they will ever admit. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the way Communion is carried out– from Baptist, to Presbyterian, to Methodist, to Charismatic, to Lutheran. Our Communion services, with rare exception, are somber and heavy, myopically focused on sin and the Cross and seeming to lack in Good News. This may be appropriate for a season like Lent, or on a day like Good Friday, but Christ did and is doing so much more! Jesus also healed, rejoiced in His Father’s love, rose again, ascended into heaven, and is with us to the end of the age. Our Communion services must do a much better job of reflecting the full reality of Christ and his works.

    Many in the Evangelical universe hope and pray for revival in our churches because so many are struggling and genuine conversions seem few and far between, while many believers live blatantly immoral lives. Just such a revival may come with the renewal of Word and Table in our Sunday services. As churched and un-churched are confronted with the fullness of God’s Word, and immersed in the saving acts of THE Word, Christ Jesus, week in and week out, revival (although quietly and largely unobserved) will come. It may not be the revival of our immediate forbears where the “altar” was lined with weeping, penitent sinners, or the raucous emotionalism of revival tent meetings; but rather the steady growth that takes place because the roots are spreading deep into nutrient rich soil and pure subterranean water-ways. It its season, such a revival will produce a crop thirty, sixty and a hundredfold. A revival of the ole’ fashioned kind burned hot and bright but quickly died away. The next revival must be slow and deep enough to transform, not only individual lives, but the whole culture as well.

    A diet of plain pasta worship, from generation to generation, has and will fail to make disciples of the sort Jesus has commanded us to go and make. I long for the day when Word and Table is renewed and loved across the land, across denominations. Lord Jesus hasten the day.

    *I do, however, like to make the analogy that the different types of sauces and toppings are like the different styles and expressions of Word & Table worship that organically grow out of the many different cultures and “tribes” of the world.

    The analysis of “worship style” by the late Robert Webber, in his last book, Ancient-Future Worship, is spot on:

    The style of doing Word and Table is a matter of making the content and structure of worship indigenous to the local setting. The greatest error I have seen in the style of worship–both traditional and contemporary–is to program it. Traditional worship strings together Scripture readings, prayers, psalms, choir, solo numbers, offering and announcements and then adds a sermon and benediction at the end. Usually there is little thought given to narrating God’s story and vision. On the other hand, most contemporary worship leaders think in terms of opening with thirty minutes of songs and choruses strung together, followed by a time for announcements and offering, followed by the sermon (not generally regarded as worship). The sermon is usually topical, often supplemented with a few Bible stories, but seldom about the Good News that God has won a decisive victory over the powers of evil and will eventually set up his kingdom forever. Consider what is happening in our world today with militant terrorists who wish to cast Israel into the sea and scale the wall of the Western world and bring it to ruin. What is more relevant: a therapeutic sermon that makes you feel good about yourself, or a sermon that speaks to who narrates the world? (pg. 78)

Christians & Their Idols

26 01 2014

We can bear neither our vices nor their cure. — Livy

It is a difficult day and time to make disciples of Jesus the Messiah– especially in our churches. Entirely too many of our churches have bought into the beliefs and practices of the culture surrounding them. As a result, they look much like the Jerusalem in Solomon’s time: yes there is the Temple of the one, real God, but throughout the city are also temples and idols to a plethora of other “gods” and powers. Many of us Christians sitting in the pews of our sanctuaries (or the chairs of the auditoriums of our “worship centers”), do not have idols on our shelves, but we do have idols in our thinking and our doing. In other words, we (and I include myself in this) worship many of the same “gods” that our declining culture worships, but we haven’t yet awakened to the fact of it.

It’s odd that we don’t see the homage we pay to the deities of our time. For example, many of us would agree with Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s assessment that our culture

“…has already gone far down the road of abandoning the Judeo-Christian principles of the sanctity of life and the sacred covenant of marriage. Instead, it places its faith in a series of institutions, none of which can bear the weight of moral guidance: science, technology, the state, the market, and evolutionary biology. Science tells us what is, not what ought to be. Technology gives us power but cannot tell us how to use that power. The liberal democratic state, as a matter of principle, does not make moral judgments. The market gives us choices but does not tell us which choices to make. Evolutionary biology tells us why we have certain desires, but not which desires we should seek to satisfy and which not. (2013 Erasmus Lecture, FIRST THINGS, January, 2014)

And yet, how many of us bow at the altars of science, technology, government, consumerism, entertainment, and the rest? When someone is sick in your home, what is your first impulse? To pray or to reach for a bottle of pills? I am in NO way advocating that “true faith” avoids doctors and medicines– they are from God as well. I’m simply asking about our initial reaction? I can tell you mine: I wonder how many specialists will have to be seen, how many prescriptions; and I wonder if science will find a cure. I seem, mostly, only to come to prayer when the illness or condition appears to be beyond the reach of today’s science. Or how about the number of people you know who love Jesus and go to church but usually look to government to solve their problems and make life better? And how many Christians do you know who spend entirely too much time and money on the latest technology in order to have an optimal gaming or movie or sports watching experience (not to mention what we spend on phones & tablets!)?

We look, I look, to these idols and expect them to fill me. And when they don’t I get frustrated, angry and depressed. These false “gods” cannot answer the deepest questions of our souls or heal our debilitating wounds. And we seem to have a love-hate relationship with them. We say, “I know I spend too much time and money on X & Y, and I need to be a better Christian, but I don’t want to be one of those religious freaks who is always reading the Bible, going to church, fasting and helping those in need! That’s just too much!” And so we find that we can bear neither our vices nor their cure.

The bottom line is that we will not feel fully ourselves by any of the following: the latest exercise program, the newest tech, the most up-to-date medical science, great sales at the mall, the election of “our guy” as the new president, eating the latest “super-foods”, or our team winning the championship. Equally true, we will not be who we were meant to be simply by singing the newest worship song, buying the hottest Christian book on spiritual health, or finding a “dynamic” church and preacher.

If we would be cured and made whole, we will, as C.S. Lewis puts it, have to “go in for the full treatment” from Jesus. He cannot be just another “idol” on our life’s list of things we enjoy and look to for happiness and fulfillment. We must allow him to be King of the Mountain of our lives, with all other idols lying broken and in disarray at the bottom of that same mountain.

How we accomplish this is a matter for another time. But it begins with recognizing the false “gods” we worship (even if we worship them in church!) and seeing them for what they are: used car salesmen who bait us with polished greatness, and switch us to a money sucking lemon. For that is what the demons do– these false “gods”. They promise us the moon, and leave us naked in the dark. It may be time to seek out and submit ourselves wholly to the Light, the One who is real and whose promises are true.

I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.

— Jesus of Nazareth (John 8:12)

Dangerous Power

2 05 2012

Music is a powerful, emotion-laden tool. As with most things imbued with power, it can do great good…and great harm. Note the horrendous effects of the “worship-wars” that have taken place across all denominations over the last 30 or 40 years. All because certain types of songs and styles of music evoke such strong emotions. The worst part is that so many well-meaning believers have reduced the concept of “worship” to the music portion of our Sunday morning gatherings. Certain styles of church music are incorrectly labeled “praise and worship.”
The following quote is by David Walker, who is asking what we should do when we find ourselves addicted to the music of worship. My response to his question follows.
I’m a worship leader in a church that immensely values the musical expression of worship. I love music that connects and gives people an opportunity to respond

to God. With all that is in me, I feel this is a good thing.

But what happens when this musical expression becomes the central focus, instead of the King who it is for? As worship gatherings happen all over the world week in and week out, how much time is the church actually spending worshipping the King of Glory, and how often are people instead worshipping worship itself?

From what I have seen and experienced, this addiction to worship is a common problem. So how do we break out of worshipping worship?

Pasted from <http://weare3dm.com/wayfarer/we-are-3dm/when-worship-becomes-an-addiction/#comment-237>

I have overcome worship addiction through the use of time-tested, ancient worship practices, aka “liturgy”. It is like a marriage or family– don’t we all have little rituals we do at home with spouse and children. Don’t we frequently say, “I love you” even when we don’t necessarily feel loving? Sometimes liturgy is boring, or even feels dumb– but so too with our family lives. But our little family rituals always, no matter if they’re exciting, normal or boring, point us back to the love that binds us together. So does ancient liturgy: boring or thrilling, it ALWAYS points us to the Trinity, and helps us enter into the eternal love, joy and strength of the Trinity. That same-ness so many find boring in liturgical worship is also the thing that keeps us properly centered– just like that silly thing your kids and my kids insist that you or I do for them every night (a song or funny face or whatever it is)! Saying “I love you” every day is sometimes full of emotion, sometimes devoid of it– but it is ALWAYS a powerful symbol and icon pointing us to the truth that holds life together. So with liturgy.