Monthly Archives: April 2015

A Different Way Than Violence and Death?

All of us are concerned about the rise of violence in our closely connected world.   No longer can we disconnect the United States from the violence across the world—-but even if we could, we would still have an extremely large amount of violence to deal with in our own country.

I’m not going to catalog all that is going on, as I know that you are aware of it.  Violence and death in the Middle East and Africa, especially  at the hands of ISIS and other extremists groups, that is now extending to attacks on the U.S. by our own citizens who have been trained by these groups.   The usual practice of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” has been extended to killing as many innocent people as possible in retribution for suspected wrongs or for not being the right religion.  Terrorism is a world-wide threat.

In our own country (the U.S.) there is increasing violence and death at each other’s hands.  We are a gun culture and guns, due to the political influence of the NRA (National Rifle Association) are proliferating at an alarming rate.   Kansas, for example just passed a law allowing open carry and also concealed carry without any training and guns are  allowed in most public buildings and  everywhere not posted.

We live in a country where civilian paramilitary groups with a paranoid fear of the federal government are stockpiling rations and weapons because they fear, rightly or wrongly, that their own government is going to attack them.  Most of us live in an urban environment where life is increasingly cheap—there are shootings almost every day in Wichita, KS where I live.   People do not trust law enforcement and law enforcement does not trust people and the result is that people get shot by police and then riots occur over the shootings and more lives are lost.   Drunken arguments that used to be solved by fist-fights too often are now solved by the use of a gun.

People have tried for centuries to bring about peace by the sword, by the gun, by the missile, and by the threat of nuclear bombs—-and still there is no peace.   When will we learn that peace that is enforced by armed might  is not peace?  Force always involves fear and retribution and thus does not last.

There is an alternate way to peace that we have seldom tried.   It is the way that a person called Jesus of Nazareth taught and lived over 2000 years ago.   It is a peace not kept by the power of armed might  and violence,  but based on the power of  love and non-violence that Jesus taught and lived.   Somehow most of the Western world, while calling themselves his followers,  have missed his main message of peace.

A few have glimpsed the power of this way of non-violence and love.   Mahatma Ghandi was one—-Martin Luther King was another.   Both achieved their aims by this method and not by armed might.   Both, I might add, like Jesus, were  resisted by the domination systems of their day, and were killed eventually by those who felt threatened by them.   But both secured a lasting change for the better for millions of people by using the power of love and non-violence.

When are we going to stop killing each other and try this way of love and non-violence?    This is the only way to true peace.    We have yet to try it in our relationship with others, and on a national or international scale.

Is “Bigger Better” in Churches?

 

In America today we want everything “supersized”—-from our french fries at McDonalds to our huge houses where only two people reside..   We seem to live by the slogan:   “Bigger is Better!”  But is it?    I’d like to examine that question in relation to the size of churches.   Are megachurches more successful than small churches?

Those of us who have  attended  church  conventions know that the featured speakers and most of the workshop leaders will be  pastors from large churches.   Somehow  the “rank and file” seem to think that because they are large megachurch pastors they have all the answers and are personally successful as well as leaders of successful churches, and so we come to see what crumbs of wisdom they might cast our way that will help us and our small churches be”successful” like they are.—meaning having large membership numbers and a campus of buildings.   That these pastors are good administrators is a given here.   That they have a good deal of charisma and are deliver good sermons  is usually true.   That they have answers to the question of how to build a megachurch and manage it is also true.   Their churches offer tons of programs for children and adults—from support groups for people with various problems to children’s ministry and everything in between.   But are a variety of programs offered to attract large numbers of people to their church a measure of success as  Jesus defined success?  I’m not so sure of this—and that is the question we examine today.

I’m leading a Home Fellowship Group in a Bible Study of the Gospel of Mark.   At our last session we discussed this question of “supersize” as Jesus seemed to see it.   He accepted the large crowds he attracted—some so large along the Sea of Galilee that he acquired a boat to get in so he would not be crushed by the crowds seeking to touch him and be healed.   But Jesus tends to see those crowds as no reason for gratification.   He feels that many of them are there for the wrong reason, to be healed of their infirmities and to see the miraculous.   Jesus heals them and has compassion for them, but  proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God is his main mission.   That proclamation is his main mission because it  has the power to transform people’s lives,  and sometimes people who are only seeking physical healing and entertainment  can get in the way of that proclamation.

I think the Parable of the Sower in Chapter 4 of the Gospel of Mark shows the way he feels about the crowds he attracts.   You can read it in Mark 4: 1-9.   Sowing grain in that day was done by throwing it from right to left by hand.   Because of that there was no control over where the actual seeds landed on the ground.   Jesus says some seed fell on pathways and the birds came and ate it.   Some seed fell on rocky ground where there was not enough soil to support it and when it came up it had shallow roots and the sun scorched it and killed it. Some seed fell among thorns and weeds and they choked it the plant out before it could get established.  But some seed fell on good soil  and it brought forth grain that multiplied it one hundredfold.

Jesus saw the crowds to whom he sought to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God in the same way.    Only a small portion of the crowd would actually be transformed by the good news of the Kingdom of God.   The rest would let other things choke it out of their lives and die unchanged.  Thus I feel Jesus was not impressed with numbers but with changes in the lives of people who heard him.

With the above in mind, now we need to look at what makes a church successful today.   I think the answer to my question “Is Bigger Better?” as it pertains to churches  is this:  it is not size alone that leads to success of any church, large or small, but it is  its ability to follow Jesus and in doing so  transform the lives of those who are a part of that church and those who that church reaches out to.   The measure of a church’s success is the number of lives that have been changed and transformed due to its proclamation both in word and in deed of the Kingdom of God.   The successful church  is the “good soil” in the Parable of the Sower” that brings forth transformation  of people’s lives and nurtures their growth in relationship to God and God’s Kingdom..   A successful church, regardless of the names on the roster, changes people into devoted followers of Jesus and his teachings as they live their lives each day.   Small churches can be just as successful as large churches in changing people’s lives as they live the great commandment to love God and neighbor as yourself.”   Sometimes because small churches are more personal, they are able to live this better than those with thousands on their membership roster.

It is not the numbers, but what happens to the lives of the people who are the numbers that indicates success for a church.  The early church was made up of house churches with small numbers—but they changed the world by living their faith every day, even in the face of persecution and death! 

Being a Church Member

 

Are you a member of our church?   Have you “joined” our church?   Before you answer the question I want to share Donald T. Williams definition of “Member” in his Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith:    “Member (n.) One of the individuals who allegedly make up the roster of a given Congregation (q.v.)  Less than one half of them can usually be found or accounted for.”    A  Congregation, according to Williams is:  ” church-speak for Audience; those who show up for the entertainment offered on any given Sunday.”   Note well that in neither of these definition does the word “Christian”, or “disciple of Jesus”, or “followers of Jesus on the Way” show up.   Nope—just “member”.

While William’s definitions are  obviously a “tongue-in-cheek” way of poking fun at churches who are a little too proud of the large number on their membership rolls; there is more truth in the above definitions  than we would like to think.  There are many on our church rosters who are not followers of Jesus nor Christians in any sense of the word. They are ones who “joined the church” , were baptized, etc. and went through the expected rituals, and then left and will never be seen again—-until they or a loved one are diagnosed with a terminal disease, or die unexpectedly.   Then they or their families will expect the pastor of the church they “joined” to give them solace and hold their funerals.   Many times as a pastor I was taken by surprise to read in an obituary that someone I had neither seen nor heard of  was a member of my church!

That’s been the perennial problem caused by the idea of  church membership.   Church membership seems to mislead people into thinking that becoming a church members makes them a Christian!.    It may well be—but it may not, also!

Another aspect of this perennial problem with “church membership”  is that it leads  people to think that they are  “in” and those who are not “members” are “out.”   This type of exclusivity is not Christian.   It is not what Jesus taught nor the way he ministered.   Surely anyone who has read a Gospel knows that the poor, the vulnerable, the blind, the leper, the victimized were the ones for which he showed priority concern.  Never once did he say, you have to join my church to be my follower.  No, you just followed him and modeled your life after him and his teachings.  That’s what made you Jesus’ disciple.

   Church membership as required  is not what Paul wrote about.  True, he founded churches so that they could mutually sustain each other in the midst of persecution.  I believe Paul would say that church membership alone is just a variant of  the old temple-system of Jesus time revived with its Court of the Gentiles, Court of the Women, Court of the Jews and the Holy of Holies that only priests could enter.   One of the reasons Jesus attacked that system was its exclusivity.    Paul likewise criticized in his teachings and his ministry those who tried to make Christianity exclusive—e.g. those who said you must become a good Jew and observe the Jewish Torah and customs, including food customs and male circumcision,   before you can be a Christian.  Paul wrote that  God gives his saving Love and Grace to all—not just to those who have their names on church rolls.

“Membership” is good if it unites people in the body of Christ (the words used by Paul to describe the church) and therefore enables them as the body of Christ to do things that a single individual could not do in serving God and walking in “The Way”.    Its the actions of  all the individuals that make up the body  that show they are followers of Christ—not their individual name on a membership roster of a church.

Who cares if you are a “member of the church”?    That’s not the question.   A better question to ask is “Are you walking with Jesus on the Way?” 

 

Asking the Right Questions Today?

 

A recent article in the Alban Weekly caught my attention by its title.   “New Questions for a New Day?”    Although it was an article on new questions churches need  to ask rather than the ones they are asking, it caused me to think about questions that desperately need to be asked in our political jungle today.    We are allowing the media and political pundits to ask the wrong questions of our politicians!   Let me give you a few examples:

The question:   “How will you vote on issues concerning abortion?” should be replaced by the question:  “How will you vote on issues concerning quality of life for all human beings in our society?”   Will your votes  seek to protect only fetuses or will your vote be for protecting the one in five children in Kansas who are hungry and without access to enough adequate foods and considered food insecure.   Will you protect these children  from disease by your votes that extend badly needed medical care, or are you only interested in unborn fetuses?

The question:   “How will you vote on issues concerning gay marriage“? might be replaced with the question:  “what will you advocate through your votes that will protect the rights of all citizens of the U.S. regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation so that all citizens can enjoy the full range of freedom guaranteed by our Constitution.?”

The question:  “Are you a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican?” might be replaced by the question:   “In what way will you vote for the common good of all citizens, regardless of party preference?”    I recently saw a poster on FB that showed a bird flying and said “politicians should be like birds–both the left wing and the right wing support the middle!”

The question:   “How can we better hold educators accountable?” should be replaced by the question, “ How are you going to be held accountable for the education of our children in Kansas? ”   How are you going to better support teachers in their difficult job?  Are you going to respect the job that teachers do, often for poor pay and little appreciation?   What are you going to suggest and vote for that will make sure that children we send to teachers are ready to learn by supporting early childhood education?   What are you going to do that insures that half of the children coming to the Wichita Public Schools are not coming to school hungry and therefore unable to learn?  or homeless and therefore insecure and having difficulties learning?    As I read recently—“When Congress passes “No Child Left Unfed, No child without Health Care, and No Child left homeless, then we can talk seriously about No Child Left Behind?  After that happens we can talk about accountability!

It’s time we get the message to the media and the political pundits that we wish to have politicians speak on these questions rather than the old tired ones that are now asked..   As Ghandi once said:   “Be the change!”  We can “be the change” by defining the real problems in our society and then demanding answers and solutions to those problems by asking the right questions.  We then need to use the power of the ballot to demand accountability from those who govern us.   The change can begin with your intelligent and knowledgable casting of a ballot that holds our elected officials  accountable.   “BE THE CHANGE”.

 

Killing Jesus—-Why??

 

We often are so eager to get to the Easter Lilies and the cries of  “He is Risen”, that we forget the significance of what happened the Friday preceding Easter—the Crucifixion.    Without the crucifixion there is no resurrection!    Early Christians were known as the “people of the Cross”, not the Resurrection.    God sent his Son into the world in the human form we know as  Jesus of Nazareth.   Jesus revealed a God to us who is like a loving Father.   He proclaimed the Kingdom of the God he called “Father”, and by his life and his teachings Jesus revealed what the characteristics of that Kingdom are. These characteristics turned the world upside down in his day.  The Kingdom of God needed no temple system with its sacrifices and wealth for the priests and scribes.   The Kingdom of God advocated for the poor, the outcast, the leper, the sinners and said that the “greatest among you shall be the servant of all.”   That phrase about “servants” caused those who were powerful to be uneasy.   The Kingdom of God, as Jesus proclaimed it, was subversive to the economic, social, religious, and political domination systems of the day.   And so these systems combined to kill him!    The same could happen in our day, and in fact has.

St. Anselm, back in the 11th Century came up with a reason that Jesus died on the cross in his “atonement theory”—-postulating that God’s righteousness had to be satisfied and that to atone for the sins of all humanity, God demanded that Jesus be sacrificed on the cross to “pay” for humanity’s sins.  I find it difficult to believe that the God Jesus came to tell us about—a God of love for humanity and all creation—would demand an innocent human sacrifice to pay for our sins!   No—-I believe that human sin crucified Jesus on that cross.   Human greed, human lust for power, and human fear killed himHuman economic, social, religious and power systems combined to kill Jesus because these systems were threatened by his message of life in the Kingdom of God.

 If Jesus came back today and preached and taught and acted toward the domination systems of our day, the result would be the same—-they would kill him—-perhaps not on a cross, but would do so by refusing to even consider everything that he taught and preached and did.  His cross today would be a cross of indifferencebut the effect today is the same—-it silences Jesus once and for all so that the demands of the kingdom of God will not infringe on our comfort, our wealth, our ambition for power, and our economic domination by the few over the many.  God did not demand Jesus’ death, he was the messenger that human beings killed because of his message that threatened their comfortable way of life.  

“He is Risen!”   we will shout this coming Easter Sunday!   I praise God for the promise of the resurrection and the eternal life through that resurrection which is assured to followers of the Christ due to that resurrection!