Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Strong Must Accept The Weak

I recently posted my review of Dave Black's book Paul, Apostle of Weakness. As I mentioned some parts really pricked my conscience so I wanted to think more about one passage in particular.

I have always gravitated toward traditions in Christianity that focus on "being right" and often those traditions made "being right" a lot more than just an honest attempt to live faithfully. Instead they all too often became a way to lord over the "less mature", uninformed or just plain ignorant among the Body. Just being honest I embraced the new Calvinist culture because (not the theology proper which I still hold to, I mean the culture that surrounds the contemporary manifestation) in part because I liked to argue with people who didn't subscribe to Reformed theology. It was often little better than bullying because most Christians are unprepared for those kind of debates and the "young, restless, reformed" types were always prepared to argue. I have seen some of those same tendencies in other groups, leading me to the sobering conclusion that perhaps this idea of being the "stronger" brother appeals to me in an unhealthy and divisive way.

Dr. Black addressed the question of how more mature, "stronger" Christians should behave in relation to less mature, "weaker" brothers. While generally the response has been to dominate or divide (more on this), he suggest an odd course of action: love.

His answer is to indicate by a series of imperatives and arguments that love can tolerate even the most severe disagreements in matters of personal conviction and that such problems should be resolved in the interests of edification. Because Christ Jesus has accepted the weaker members of the church, for whom he died, so too must the string accept and support them in an attitude of humility and love.... To Paul the issue is not so much the immature view of the weak as it is the spirit of the so-called "strong" who condemn their weaker brothers and sisters.

(David Alan Black, Paul, Apostle of Weakness, pg. 149)

Well that is a fine how do you do! What fun is there in being a Christian who reads and ponders and blogs if I can't use that to bludgeon others and impress my friends with how clever I am?

Does he have a point? Absolutely and a very important one. The church is not set up to be a place where the strong dominate the weak but where the strong love the weak.We tend to naturally gravitate to a hierarchy where we place the strongest at the top and the weakest at the bottom. The strong are recognized by title and prestige. There is of course nothing wrong with recognizing the more mature among us but they should be noted for their service and exemplary lives, not for dominating and demanding.

The church is only as strong as it treats the weakest among us. If we see the weak as people to be ostracized and avoided lest they infect us or as fools to be corrected by our superior knowledge, perhaps we are not quite as strong as we think we are.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Book Review: Paul, Apostle of Weakness

There is hardly a more cutting indictment of a man than to say he is weak. Being weak in our culture implies someone who cannot function as a man is supposed to function and likewise suggests an infirmity or femininity on his part. So for many men, especially Western men, the idea of weakness is abhorrent. How much more so when you are told that weakness is actually a source of strength? This apparent clash between the culture of our day and the Scriptures is one of the most perplexing for many people. In reaction we sometimes see one of two extremes, either an feminized church culture that is all kleenex and doilies and lillies or an overly masculinized church culture of belching, monster trucks and mixed martial arts. Neither captures what the Bible is talking about when speaking of weakness.

It is only when we study what the Bible, in particular the apostle Paul, has to say about weakness that we discover what it means to the follower of Christ. Into this study comes the revised edition of Dr. David Alan Black's work Paul, Apostle of Weakness. This is an important entry into the study of Paul's writing on a critical topic for conversation in the church.

A word of warning at the outset. This is not an easy book to read. Unlike many of Dr. Black's other, more accessible books aimed at a broader audience like The Jesus Paradigm, Paul, Apostle of Weakness (PAoW for short) is a meatier book studying a very specific concept and a particular word. As such it often had me bogged down as someone without formal training in the original languages. I would not hesitate to say that the casual reader would have a very difficult time reading PAoW. I know that in many places I did! That is not meant to scare you off, just give you a realistic view.

Dr. Black explores the use of the word astheneia in Paul's writings. We often run into the idea of "weakness" in the New Testament but likewise we often see it as part of a broader topic. What Dr. Black does is to pull together each of the different uses of astheneia and show the overarching themes that Paul is drawing from. The passages are familiar but when pulled together in this way they take on a new life and we see that weakness was not a passing complaint from Paul but a central reality of his daily living.

Perhaps the best part of the book is the concluding chapter where Dr. Black draws together everything he has written into a summary. I found it very helpful in making a broad application of how weakness plays into our understanding of the human condition, the preeminence of God's power and the often frustrating inter-relationships in the church. I have more thoughts on that topic, you can be certain!

All in all, a very challenging book both because of the counter-cultural nature of the topic as well as the more complex than average writing level but it is also a worthwhile use of your time. Weakness as a submission to God is not being a weakling but rather a discovery of the source of our truest strength, reliance on God who is all sufficient. Check out Paul, Apostle of Weakness to aid your study of this never ending fountain of true strength!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reflections on our perverse view of children

As I mark with sadness the anniversary of the travesty known as "Roe v.. Wade", a gross usurpation of the power of the legislature to make law and the 10th amendment, I thought of how perverse our culture's view of children really is.

A madman shoots twenty children in a suburban school and the nation rightly mourns and weeps, at least for a few hours until the political posturing begins.

Meanwhile in Chicago and other cities around the nation, young people, children in fact, murder one another with impunity and few people care.

The man we inaugurated as our President yesterday who spoke forcefully about "doing something" and protecting our children at the same time embraced the culture of death that transforms tens of millions of children into "choices" to be disposed of at will. The death of twenty children at the hands of a man wielding a gun is a tragedy, the death of 56,000,000 children at the hands of men wielding scalpel and suction tubes is cherished as a sign of how far we have progressed.

Yet many of the same people who carry signs protesting abortion shrug off the deaths of children around the world, victims of the "war on terror". Freedom isn't free and all that.

A child killed in a suburban school is a tragedy. A black child shot by another black child in Chicago is a statistic. A child killed in the womb is a murder victim or a choice depending on your politics. A Pakistani child killed in a drone strike is collateral damage, an acceptable loss to preserve our way of life.

Ours is a culture that feeds and thrives on death, especially the death of children. If that doesn't make you weep, something is broken inside of you.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Problem With Progressivism

You won't find me quoting many United Methodists, at least not in a favorable light, but I saw this article yesterday and thought he hit the nail on the head. The article, Kentucky United Methodist Bishop Cites Obstacles to Evangelism, cites Lindsey Davis who is a UMC Bishop in Kentucky and what he said was fascinating to me (emphasis added)..

“I love our church,” Davis said. “But it greatly frustrates me at times because I so earnestly believe that our Wesleyan theology is exactly what our world needs to hear. Yet our structures and process seem so unable to chart a new course for our journey. Our future must be focused on evangelism. And there are parts of our church these days that won’t even talk about evangelism.”

United Methodism, while growing globally, has lost 3.5 million in the U.S. over 45 years. Davis pointed to the “inability of our church to adjust and change” to reach new people for Christ.

“A lot of what we’ve been doing is not working,” Davis regretted of United Methodism. “It’s not bearing the fruit God expects. Not reaching the lost. We don’t even call them lost any more. We don’t even see those people as lost.

Indeed. How can you reach the lost if you are afraid of calling them lost in the first place? Without the urgency of a visceral awareness of the lostness of man and the reality of hell how exactly does one evangelize? Or at least how does one evangelize using the Biblical Gospel?

So much of what I see that falls under the umbrella of "progressive" or liberal Christianity strikes me as a reaction against the real and perceived excesses of fundamentalist Christianity. I get that, even as someone who bears many of the marks of fundamentalism, but I also see a lot of baby being tossed out with the bathwater. From the reality of hell and the historicity of Adam to issues of gender and sexuality it seems to me that in the urge to cast off any association with conservatism or fundamentalism the church in the progressive wing has lost a lot of crucial truths to their detriment. In doing so they have lost their connection to the core of the Gospel, namely the substitutionary atonement of Christ.

I am certain that many on the "left" would take umbrage at my admittedly sweeping assertion. Please note that I absolutely recognize that in spite of what I would label overly political solutions to Kingdom questions I do appreciate that at least progressive Christians seem concerned with issues of poverty and justice to an extent largely unheard of among more "orthodox" or "conservative" Christians. My concern is that there is a cart before the horse problem, a matter of prioritization. Teaching people to care for the poor is laudable but is not in and of itself the Gospel, especially not when caring for the poor becomes synonymous with secular economic redistribution.

Anyway, what do you think? Is my critique and that of Mr. Davis fair?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Throne But Not The Table?

A brief thought this morning on thrones, tables and accessibility. Not "Winter Is Coming" kind of thrones but the throne of our Lord and our God.

I was listening to music, something I rarely do, and during my most favoritest hymn, And Can It Be?, I heard these words:

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Charles Wesley didn't just make that concept up from thin air. His hymns by and large are not cheesy religious love songs but drawn from deep in the well of Scripture. It is an article of faith for Christians that we have access to God without intercessor. We are told that Jesus Himself is our great High Priest and therefore we need no man to stand between us to mediate, not priest nor pastor nor especially a long dead "saint". We find wonderful truth in the fourth chapter of the letter to the Hebrews.

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

Amen and amen!

Oddly there are many who hold to this wonderful truth and still declare that while a Christian can come before the throne of the Lord God Almighty in prayer and supplication without intercessor, that same Christian cannot be trusted to come to the table of the Lord without the permission of man.

Why would something that should unite the church be used as a tool to divide the church? How arrogant of men to stand before a table that they have no right to but are invited to by Christ nevertheless and declare it off limits to a fellow brand plucked from  the fire?

Christian never let someone tell you that you are unworthy to come to the Table based on the preferences of man. You are invited to come before the throne and sup at the Table equally and no man has been granted the right to edit the guest list.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Some New Series To Watch

There are a couple of good blog series you should check out.

The first comes from Justin Hiebert (HT: Robert Martin) and deals with Pacifism and 'Just War'...
Pretty goods thoughts on that topic, I would love to see more conversation happening.

The other series is from Alan Knox and is another topic I think needs more attention, the topic of  equipping the church for the work of ministry. Here is the series....
  1. Introduction
  2. Apostles
  3. Prophets
  4. Evangelists
  5. Shepherds and Teachers
  6. Others (Conclusion)
All good stuff. Check out both series and join the conversation!

Liberty Is A Lie: Justifying Ourselves To The Government

A quick political rant if you don't mind. Just wondering, why exactly do I need to justify anything and everything I do to the government before, maybe, getting permission?

With the tragedy at Sandy Hook the refrain again becomes "why does anyone need an 'assault rifle' to hunt ducks?" As if I have to justify my ownership of a particular firearm as a law abiding citizen to some elected official from New York. I don't need an assault rifle and I don't own one. I also don't need any of the books I own. I don't need Cheetos. When you get right down to it the list of things I need is pretty short. That doesn't give the government the authority to limit my ownership of any of them. The Second Amendment doesn't say "The right of the people to keep and bear arms for hunting and target practice shall not be abridged"

On taxes we are told that some people can afford to "pay a little more" in taxes. The mindset in play here is that you don't really have a claim one nickle of your money more than the rest of America says you do. If you make some mysterious amount that qualifies you as "rich" (perhaps best defined as anyone who makes more than I do), then you should gladly forfeit the wages you earned by your own effort for "the greater good", which looks a lot like feeding the Federal bureaucracy. If you think you should keep the wages you have earned you need to justify why and that is political poison so we hide it behind exemptions and deductions.

Even what you eat is subject to approval. Selling milk that doesn't get processed according to the government's standards to willing and informed consumers? That might get you a visit from friendly neighborhood Federal agents, guns drawn on you or your wife or even your children. Processing and selling meat on your own that doesn't get run through an industrial plant? Same thing. The government tells us what and how much to eat more and more each year and yet the population grows progressively more obese. Small farm raised food is deemed too dangerous to consume but when the recalls for tainted meat come out guess where they come from? The same government that says unadulterated milk from a cow is a hazard to your health is fine with you eating snack foods made from chemicals that no one can pronounce.

Your milk is too fresh, your soda pop is too large. Your gun is too scary, your bank account too flush, your pickup truck to big.

Please sir, may I keep more of my wages?
What happened that we find ourselves coming hat in hand before the government, begging like Oliver Twist to get what by rights is ours to begin with? In our society, when you get right down to it, liberty is a lie. Anything you "own" is only yours as long as you obey the government. Your house, even paid in full with the deed in hand, is only yours as long as you follow the government rules and pay the government tax even when it goes to government schools that you don't use. Want to drive a car? You have to get permission from the government. Want to get married? You need a license from the government. You are a guy and turn 18, you have 30 days to register for the draft so you can be forced to go fight some inane war that our government has deemed is in the "national interest". Land of the free and home of the brave huh? Can we stop singing that because it isn't true now and might never have been true anyway.

If I still thought that America was pivotal to God's Kingdom advancing I would despair. Now that I realize that America could disappear overnight and it wouldn't matter one iota in the real grand scheme of things it is a relief. That doesn't mean I still don't get angry about this stuff it just means that I am starting to realize that none of it really matters very much.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Anabaptism Without The Boundaries

I had an email exchange with a friend and we sort of stumbled on a concept: Anabaptism without boundaries. To understand that you need to understand the lay of the land of Anabaptism where we live. Our immediate community has an enormous and well established population of Anabaptists, from Amish to conservative Mennonites to really conservative Mennonites to really, really conservative Mennonites to former Amish to Beachy Amish and everything in between. It is a fascinating area in that respect and we have really started to get to know the different groups. We also have seen the way that these rich traditions and unique practices can create barriers that are unhealthy and I believe unnecessary.

When I write about Anabaptism it is important to note that I am speaking of the conservative wing of modern Anabaptists. Conservative Anabaptists are usually easy to spot. They tend toward very conservative clothing, the women all cover their heads, their buildings tend to be very spartan. Having said that, the conservatives do not have a monopoly on Anabaptism. There are many people who would declare themselves to be Anabaptists that look and often believe very differently from conservative Anabaptists. The more liberal or "progressive" wing of Anabaptism is largely absent in the area where I live and carries it own set of baggage, namely that in my humble opinion it tries too hard to rebel against the rules of traditional Anabaptism and ends up abandoning any semblance of standards. I am sure that will offend some but I call 'em like I see 'em.

I consider myself to be an Anabaptist, at least in the sense of someone who sees themselves within the wide tradition over the centuries of radical reformers that have carried the name "Anabaptist". That may strike some as odd. I am not a Miller or a Yoder. I didn't grow up in an Anabaptist church. We don't really look or act much like what Anabaptists are supposed to look like. In fact I am a pretty odd candidate to identify myself as an Anabaptist having spent so much of my Christian walk in the Reformed tradition (listening to the White Horse Inn where every ill in the church could be tied back to those Anabaptists and fixed by "word and sacrament"). Regardless, when I look at what I consider the "core tenets" of Anabaptism, in other words what set them apart from the Magisterial Reformers and got so many of them killed, I find myself firmly in that camp.

What are those core tenets? To look around the world of conservative Anabaptism you might think that it was a particular style of dress and a love for baking but I prefer to look back at what got Anabaptists in trouble in the first place. I think Dave Black puts together a nice list in his essay Why I Love The Anabaptists but here is a condensed version that I normally reference:
  • A simple reliance on the Bible as sufficient for matters of faith and practice
  • A distinction between the church and the state
  • Non-resistance esp. as it pertains to killing on behalf of the state
  • Non-conformity with the world (and I would add the religious establishment)
  • Believer's Baptism
  • As a result of believer's baptism the church as made up exclusively of regenerate individuals with an emphasis on church discipline
That is not exactly a comprehensive list but it hits the big issues. That list alone, while it has some a few pretty distinctive teachings in our religious culture especially the non-resistance one, is not enough to create major barriers between Anabaptism and the rest of the church but in practice the gap is pretty wide and unfortunately virtually unbridgeable. This also has major implications for evangelism. Generally when someone witnesses to someone who then subsequently comes to Christ they become part of the group but for conservative Anabaptists the issue is that someone who is a new Christian is going to have a very difficult time adapting to their culture. It is a troubling situation.

That is a pretty roundabout way to get to my point but I think it is important to set the groundwork. So why is it so difficult to bridge the gap? Why do people who come from more mainstream evangelical backgrounds have such a hard time integrating into Anabaptist groups?  I think there are two major issues in play: persecution and fear.

Over the more than four hundred years since the advent of the Radical Reformation, Anabaptism has faced persecution almost continually, even in "the land of free and the home of the brave", and that persecution has made Anabaptists understandably cautious and insular. When other "Christians" have historically been the ones wielding the instruments of torture or lighting the fire under the stake one can perhaps forgive them being a little cautious.

The other factor, and the far stronger one I believe, is the fear of "liberalism" that manifests itself in viewing every other Christian who is not a "plain" or "conservative" Anabaptist as a potential heretic looking to infiltrate and liberalize the church. I understand the impulse. The news is full of stories of various groups that used to, at least on the surface, reflect Biblical teaching that have gone completely off the rails. One need look no further than a man who divorced his wife and "married" another man that is called "Bishop" in the Episcopal church. There is even some of this among traditional Anabaptist groups. What ends up being the result is an unfortunate "all or nothing" stance where non-Anabaptists are conditionally welcome but only in the most cursory sense unless they are willing to go all in with the culture and tradition. So we are left with conservative Anabaptists viewing the rest of the church with suspicion, fearful that they will sneak in and start cutting women's hair, and the rest of the church looking at conservative Anabaptists as a tourist attraction, a throwback to a bygone era, neat to look at but little else.

This uneasy state of affairs between conservative Anabaptists and the rest of the church leaves the totality of the church poorer as a result. Anabaptists have so much to teach the church about living outside of the mainstream and apart from the acceptance of the culture, a state of affairs that the entire church is going to find itself in sooner rather than later. The broader church has made, in spite of the many flaws, some real strides in evangelism and service that Anabaptists could learn from. Even more intimately the conservative Anabaptist population could desperately use some new blood but that is awfully hard when outsiders are perceived with suspicion. I still remember one evening when we were out with the family of an elder in a local Anabaptist group and my wife asked if they considered our kids someone they would be OK with their kids marrying. There was a lot of dodging and stuttering on that question but the answer was pretty clearly "no". Kind of hard to feel welcome when you are not permitted to share the Lord's Supper and your kids are viewed as unfit to marry into the family.

The challenge becomes embracing the core tenets of Anabaptism while allowing, perhaps even encouraging, others to explore what that means and how that is lived without predetermined barriers. Giving others room to grow and perhaps even giving yourself room to grow is vital for a healthy church life. While Anabaptists are not unique in their theological in-breeding (for example Plymouth Brethren on dispensationalism, Reformed churches on ecclesiology, etc.) it is certainly rampant among them. Like conservative Anabaptists we practice headcovering but a sister in Christ sitting next to us that is not covering doesn't strike me as a threat just as I don't think that a teacher expounding on libertarian free-will in salvation is cause for me to get up and leave. My brothers in Anabaptist groups need to lay off the whispered talk of churches that "went liberal" as a bogeyman to scare people. If you are teaching what the Bible teaches and allowing yourself in turn to be teachable we will all be healthier. We all have so much to learn from one another but we can't learn from those we reject nor can they learn from us.

From the earliest days Anabaptist were an evangelistic people who challenged the status quo. Being an Anabaptist doesn't demand insularity nor conformity. I would argue that it demands just the opposite.

Monday, January 14, 2013

So this one has me puzzled

I saw a link this morning from John MacArthur titled Church Membership in the New Testament. I am always interested in the arguments for "church membership" as it is such a commonly held practice with such a tenuous argument from Scripture. This case was no different. MacArthur opens and closes his essay with an admission that there is no "church membership" in the New Testament. From his opening:

While the New Testament never speaks of church membership in today’s terms, the principles of life in the early church lay the foundation for faithfully submitting and belonging to a local congregation. While the original membership process might vary from today’s patterns, there’s no doubt that New Testament Christians were lovingly united and bound to their local body of believers.

That is somewhat vague. Note he admits that it isn't really there but that the "principles" are. After making some vague assertions what becomes apparent is that what we call "church membership" is not found in the New Testament and that is what is so frustrating. When you title an article "Church Membership in the New Testament" when you admit in that article that it isn't in the New Testament, that starts to sound disingenuous. At least title it "Church Membership Isn't In The New Testament But Here Is Why You Should Practice It Anyway" so the casual reader realizes what is being argued here. There are few words more abused in the church than "Biblical"/
Then there is the closing which provides an interesting clue (emphasis mine):

One of the key ways the church can guard itself from error and maintain its purity is to confirm the faith of its people and keep them accountable. The early church didn’t have a name for that—they didn’t need one. Today we call it church membership.

Read the bolded portion again. The early church didn't have anything called church membership because they didn't need to. We have church membership today because we do. So the solution is not a man-made tradition, it is to try to find what we have lost that the early church had that made "church membership" unnecessary. That is kind of beyond the point of my post but as always let me exhort you to test everything people tell you and doubly so when they say something is "Biblical"!

Calling Unclean What God Has Called Clean

In a somewhat odd encounter in the book of Acts, God does something pretty spectacular. In chapter 10 of Acts He sends Peter a vision of all sorts of "unclean" animals on a giant sheet. At this point it is easy to go "Um, OK...." and kind of move on. Lizard on a giant bed sheet sounds like a Geico commercial not an important event in the establishment of the church and the expansion of God's covenant to include believing gentiles as well as Jews. Here is the passage:

The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." And the voice came to him again a second time, "What God has made clean, do not call common." This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. (Act 10:9-16)

When Peter goes to the house of Cornelius, he says something pretty exciting to him: "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean" (Acts 10:28). The declaration "What God has made clean, do not call common." really struck me as so important. Peter makes clear that this is not just about unclean animals. I see it applied to people that God has redeemed. Do we see other Christians as really brothers and sisters, part of a select people and chosen nation (1 Peter 2:9)? God via the work of the Holy Spirit and the shed blood of His Son has made from the many nations, Jew and Gentile alike, one people for His own.

Do we still see some people as "common" or "unclean"? Even if we don't say that we do, do we show them by our actions that we consider them somehow unworthy or unclean? I am not talking about a homeless guy or a snot nosed child in dirty clothes. I am talking about other Christians. We must because we have erected barriers within the church that effectively keep the "wrong sorts" of people out. I have certainly been part of this in the past and I have been on the receiving end more recently.

These barriers are very real but well hidden behind appeals to "the truth" or "orthodoxy', dressed up in flowery language plucked from confessions and creeds. When someone starts off a sentence with "Not that I am saying you aren't a Christian..." what follows is almost certainly going to suggest that very thing or at least that if you are a Christian that you are the wrong sort and therefore need to get your act together to join in our reindeer games. Let me be uncharacteristically blunt.

If your most cherished traditions, no matter how precious they are, serve as a barrier to fellowship with other Christians or an impediment to evangelism, then they are by definition not Biblical.

Let that sink in. We toss about the term "Biblical" for all sorts of things that are found nowhere in the Bible (another post on that subject will appear later today). We especially like to tack it on to our traditions to make us feel better about them and more justified in using them like a club.Yet if what we are claiming to be Biblical is not only not in the Bible but actually contrary to the Bible, doesn't it follow that it cannot be Biblical?

Anyway my point is this. Jesus decides who is clean or not, who is in and who is out. We don't. Even in the case of sin the purpose of discipline is to restore that brother but we never see the church declaring that some believers are second class citizens based on which denomination they belong to or their clothing style or any of a myriad of traditions that we use to divide up the sheep. His sheep are His sheep and rather than finding ways to continue to divide them up we ought to be concerned with finding ways to bring them together, even when that means discomfort for ourselves.

Wasted Space

I read this interesting statistic yesterday....

America has thirty-five million acres of lawn and thirty-six million acres devoted to housing and feeding recreational horses, and that doesn’t even count golf courses.

Salatin, Joel Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World (p. 77). Center Street. Kindle Edition.

That is some 70 million acres devoted to grass that produces basically nothing. At 640 acres to the square mile that works out to  109,375 square miles. For comparison sake, England is 50,346 square miles and Greece is 50,949 square miles, so in the United States we have the equivalent of two entire European nations worth of grass that we spend billions of dollars, who knows how many gallons of chemicals and untold amounts of energy and time either mowing to meet an arbitrary standard of neatness or caring for horses that we mostly look at. The lawn care business (and the larger general industry of landscaping suburban homes that sit in neighborhoods that are largely abandoned during daylight hours) is a huge one and one of the most frivolous and unnecessary that we have.

I like our horses and I don't mind having some lawn but I do kind of question whether we need acres of meticulously manicured lawns and pastures full of horses that mostly stand around and turn hay into manure. Just something I found interesting,

Sunday, January 13, 2013

What's Happenin'?

Well quite a lot! Just not on the blog. As only my most astute readers will notice my pace of blogging has slowed substantially. It is not that I have nothing to say, I have never suffered from that malady. No, it is more than I feel like I have nothing new or useful to say. I have so many posts half-written that I decided no one was interested in reading because I was only half-interested in what I had assembled so I just stopped. What do I have to say that I haven't said before? Precious little it seems. The church is a mess. American "Christianity" is obsessed with money, with comfort, with false security, with tradition and ritual. Christians in America seem far more concerned with their right to kill someone else, whether a mugger on the streets of America or a potential terrorist on the streets of some faraway Muslim nation, than they are with loving their enemy, taking up their cross and dying to self. Anyone not heard me say those very things before? I despair of change. We are outraged over the "assault on our religious liberty" and stand with Chick-fil-a and Hobby Lobby but seem largely unconcerned about standing with the poor, even the poor among the church, here and abroad. Have you heard that before? I often just want to throw my hands up in despair.

Blogging for me is both hobby and habit, and it is a habit that is quite easy to get out of. It is also a creative outlet. Blogging begets blogging. As I think, I blog and as I blog I think so more. I can rightly be accused of thinking about stuff more than actually doing stuff but that doesn't mean I need to think less but do more. Thinking and doing are not a zero sum game.

So I haven't died or taken a social media vow of silence. I have just been re-prioritizing some things and trying to find a happier medium. So more will come and I am sure it won't be new but hopefully it will still be helpful or edifying to someone.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Why I Love Joel Salatin

It is this sort of stuff.

The function that herbivores play, for example, in stimulating biomass accumulation is both powerful and real. Chickens have historically converted kitchen scraps into eggs. Pigs have historically scavenged domestic waste products as varied as whey, offal, forest mast, and spoiled grain. That a large percentage of landfilled material is animal-edible food waste should strike us as criminal. Rather than showering landfill administrators with greenie awards for injecting pipes into the anaerobic swill to collect biogas, we should be cycling all that edible waste through chickens and pigs so that it never goes to the landfill in the first place. 

Instead, we send armies around the world to ensure cheap petroleum to energize chemical fertilizer factories to inject acidulated elemental Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosporus (N, P and K) into tilled soils to grow grain to be harvested, gas-dried, then transported to animal factories. And now that the landfills are filling too fast, we routinely incinerate these wet, edible wastes in energy-intensive systems that run at a net energy loss. It’s insane. Nature’s systems do not generate waste. When will we learn that there is no away? We say we’ll throw it away, but away doesn’t exist. That’s why nature is full of loops and cycles.

Salatin, Joel Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World (p. 32). Kindle Edition

I am reading his book Folks, This Ain't Normal and it is chock full of solid information and common sense without the hysteria or silliness that accompanies a lot of books by people pontificating on ecological issues. I am far more interested in what a farmer has to say than what some pompous dude in Boston who has never been dirty opines about the ecology. Salatin in some ways bridges the gap by not giving into the hype. He is a Christian and a guy who likes meat but he also recognizes that there is something inherently unhealthy and unnatural when people are removed from the food chain. His view is a healthy position between the tinfoil hat wearing, Al Gore wing of the Left and the "pollution is good for you", Rush Limbaugh wing of the Right. Joel is someone who speaks eloquently and convincingly that our lifestyle impacts the environment and not in a good way but that you can still enjoy a nice steak without feeling guilty.

It is strangely perverse that we live in a society where people are living longer but also living worse. Life expectancy has never been longer thanks to medical advances to keep people alive but the general health of Americans is horrible. Asthma and allergies are incredibly widespread. Obesity is a national epidemic. Diabetes has in turn grown more widespread. We are more medicated and vaccinated and sanitized than ever before and I can't think of a way in which we are healthier. Granted people don't die from easily treatable diseases any more but what kind of a life is it? The ubiquitous bottles of hand sanitizer everywhere tell the tale. We are a people terrified of dirt and "germs", something that stems back I believe to our disconnect with the natural cycles of life, a cycle that includes death and dirt and blood. We may think we are so incredibly advanced but in truth we are unhappy and unhealthy in the extreme.

We once were a people that spread across the fruited plains, establishing small farms and homesteads that in turn created small communities. That model has been reversed over the last 50 years as more and more people returned to the urban areas and in turn created the phenomenon of suburbs (and now exurbs). This has turned farmland into acre sized lots for enormous houses that sit empty most of the time as both parents work to make the mortgage payment, sending their children off to day care and public schools (the difference between the two is hard to distinguish at times) until it is time to grab little Johnny and Suzie from school and begin running them to various activities, exhausting everyone in a quest to make sure that kids are "well rounded" enough to go to college so that they can get married at some point and start the cycle all over again. It is simply madness.

I don't consider myself a Luddite nor am I naive enough to think that we will all move back to farms. I like being able to buy foods from the store. The convenience of buying a bag of potatoes at will rather than trying to store them up is great. I don't see my family eating primarily items that we grew ourselves any time soon. I like having computers and my Kindle. I just agree with Joel that there is something essential about having this connection to the land, not just for my wife and I as adults but for our children as well. As farmers age and young people leave the land to go sit in a cubicle somewhere we are in real danger of losing something fundamental to society, namely a connection to our food supply beyond putting pre-packaged foods on the belt at Wal-Mart.

Thus far I have found Folks, This Ain't Normal to be a welcome breath of fresh air and common sense into a conversation that all too often veers off into ridiculous rhetoric and posturing. Expect to see more excerpts and thoughts from this book as I continue reading!

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Book Review: True Community: The Biblical Practice of Koinonia

As part of the the torrent of free books that became available for a few weeks I "bought" and downloaded Jerry Bridge's book True Community: The Biblical Practice of Koinonia. Bridges is a well known and generally respected author and community is a topic that I ponder and blog about a lot so this seemed like a natural fit but also one that could easily turn out to be a disappointment.

I was not disappointed.

Without hesitation I can say the True Community was one of the most engaging books I have read in the past few years. Accessible but thought-provoking, it is not a terribly deep treatment of the topic but given how far we have strayed from the Biblical principle of koinonia it is critical introduction.

One of the real strengths of this book is how little time Jerry spends talking about the formal gathering of the church. Community is not found in showing up to church, it is a reality of our new lives in Christ and we find community in sharing our lives, our time, our burdens and our material possessions with one another.

Another area I found extremely positive was his treatment of the idea that our community in Christ is a reality whether we acknowledged or not. We are in community with one another by virtue of our regenerate heart and adoption, how we live that out is where we run into questions.

An area that Jerry spends a lot of ink is on sharing materially. This is something of a taboo subject in the church at least in America. We give what we choose to "the church" and most of that money is used for our own comfort and convenience on Sunday. As he points out, sharing materially in the early church was not an afterthought but a critical part of koinonia....

One of the most common usages of koinonia in the New Testament is this sense of sharing material resources with others. For example, Paul urges us to “share with God’s people who are in need” (Romans 12: 13). In 2 Corinthians 9: 13, he speaks of “your generosity in sharing with [others].” The writer of Hebrews urges us to “not forget to do good and to share with others” (13: 16). The word share in these passages is a translation of koinnia in either its noun or verb form. A willingness to share our possessions with one another is a very important aspect of true biblical community.

Bridges, Jerry True Community: The Biblical Practice of Koinonia (Kindle Locations 154-157)

That is so important for us to understand. A community where "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours" cannot function as a true community because it denies our oneness in Christ or at least relegates it to a subordinate position behind our American right to private property. That doesn't mean that material sharing requires the Hutterite model but it does call into question acceptance and encouragement of the American evangelical love of money, possessions and financial security.

If there was an area of weakness, it was the very brief and kind of clunky chapter on Supporting Your Local Ministry. This chapter, just a few pages long, deals with the importance of giving at your "local church" for the purpose of sustaining that local church. The chapter was very perfunctory and seemed to be tacked on for no real purpose. It could easily be dropped from the book entirely.

All in all this is a great introduction to a neglected subject. True community in the Biblical model of koinonia is tragically absent in the church and it hampers our walk together, our maturation as Christians and our witness to the world. Grab this book and give it a read!

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Definition Of Insanity

Nothing is quite as amusing as an article on religion by the secular media and doubly so when the source is the self-important New York Times. I saw several people link to a recent story, Building Congregations Around Art Galleries and Cafes as Spirituality Wanes, and just had to read it. The piece focused on local churches trying to reach people in more accessible ways. It was a mix of silliness and serious questions. For example:

The “spiritual but not religious” category is an important audience that evangelical leaders hope to reach in a culture that many believers call “post-Christian.” 

So they arrange meetings in movie theaters, schools, warehouses and downtown entertainment districts. They house exercise studios and coffee shops to draw more traffic. Many have even cast aside the words “church” and “church service” in favor of terms like “spiritual communities” and “gatherings,” with services that do not stick to any script. 

One Sunday before Easter, the pastor at the Relevant Church in Tampa, Fla., wearing a rabbit suit, whisked the unsuspecting congregation away on chartered buses to a nearby park to build enthusiasm for the coming service. 

“For us, it’s all about being interactive,” said Paul Wirth, Relevant’s founder and lead pastor.

So meh on the dressing up in a rabbit suit (which is not really any less Biblical than dressing up in a business suit) but kudos on the focus on interaction rather than observation. The second page has some decent insights....

Today, younger pastors are less willing to try to finance multimillion-dollar churches with debt. After the recession, there was a surge in church foreclosures, reaching record highs in 2010 and 2011. Since 2008, more than 300 church properties have been sold after defaulting on their loans, according to the CoStar Group, a real estate information firm. 
“Every generation wants their own thing,” said Houston Clark, whose company designs spaces and audiovisual systems for churches nationwide. “Kids in their late 20s to midteens now, they really crave intimacy and authenticity. They want high-quality experiences, but don’t necessarily want them in huge voluminous buildings.” 

Five years ago, Mr. Clark said, 90 percent of his business was installing expensive lighting and sound systems for megachurches that could hold up to 5,000. But today, 70 percent of his business is working on existing buildings, like warehouses, to renovate the interiors as multipurpose spaces for churches to operate. 

It is a trend that even established megachurches, like Bent Tree Bible Fellowship in Carrollton, Tex., are studying. After paying off $5 million in debt on its 135,000-square-foot facility last year, the church is again seeking to expand. But instead of building another huge campus, church officials are looking at smaller satellite spaces that can operate seven days a week, with services like child care, shared office spaces and a community theater. 

“That’s a significant difference for us,” said Paul Miller, the pastor of ministries for Bent Tree. “We’re really building a community center, more than we are a worship center.”

Good thoughts there and I am glad to see more younger pastors eschewing the notion that a huge  mortgage on a building is a sign of godliness. As groups of Christians expand they don't need to build giant satellite campuses or ever larger buildings, indeed as the economy stumbles along and our Washington overlords keep burying us in debt the church will not be in a position to keep "spending as worship" in the future.

So the article was a little silly and off the mark, nothing less than you would expect from the New York Times trying to speak to an issue it simply doesn't understand. Sure some of this is a bit over the top, nothing like subtly trying to show how "relevant" you are by naming your church "Relevant Church". No big deal. Of course this sort of conversation is terrible threatening to the self-appointed (anointed?) powers that be. Not surprisingly the article has been a source of ridicule and in one such attempt at mockery I read a subsequent comment from someone named Kevin (full name redacted) on Facebook.

That made my eyes bleed. The number of things wrong with the idea of "worshiping in spirit and truth" equaling "sitting in comfort and safety in a pew watching a religious performance" are myriad. They are also pretty common. However I doubt many people who read that comment would see a thing wrong with it. The gathering of the church is where we go and we don't want to be interrupted while we are "worshiping", whether by messy people or often by our own messy children. Anyway, the reaction to this NY Times article is often a clumsy but predictable appeal to "Biblical leadership", defined as a strong, hierarchical sort of worldly leadership focused on a pastor who "preaches Biblically". That is what has gotten us where we are, not leaders trying to think outside of the religious box, and yet so many "leaders" in the church keep prescribing the same medicine that has gotten us sick in the first place.

Appeals to the cult of personality model where people are drawn to "church" based on a powerful individual, whether that individual is Rick Warren or John Piper or D. James Kennedy or Joel Osteen, are great for packing the pews and filling the coffers (and selling books). On preparing the church for ministry, not so much. As Alan Knox points out in a post this morning, Remembering the Importance of Mutual Edification, the primary purpose for the church gathering in whatever setting that might be is mutual edification, which I define as preparing one for the work of ministry outside of the gathering, rather than a misguided notion of what constitutes "worship". To put it more bluntly if you gather with the church and are not actively being edified and equipped in a way that prepares you for the work of ministry you are wasting your time and should find something else to do on Sunday. There are too many Christians who spend year after year "going to church" on Sunday and coming not even marginally more prepared or willing to minister to the lost in spite of decades of ever more churching.

Rather than ridiculing those who are trying to reach the lost in ways that seem odd to our traditional ideas maybe we should see if those methods are effective in reaching those we are called to minister to and take the Gospel to. This sort of criticism of those who try to operate outside of the bounds of religious tradition are not new, they were even directed at our Lord:

And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" And Jesus answered them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5:29-32)

Who does that Jesus guy think He is, hanging around with sinners! Doesn't He know that proper religious folks stay far away from sinners and lepers and women and children? I certainly am not suggesting that a pastor dressed in a rabbit suit is the same thing as Jesus eating with tax collectors but the point is that the religious establishment sees any threat to their power, prestige and pocketbook as something to be squashed. As the church our calling is to be a radical, subversive counter-witness to the prevailing religious establishment of the day rather than a willing partner indistinguishable from the religious establishment. That might mean, in fact I am convinced it must mean, that we operate outside of our traditional boundaries because the people we are called to reach simply are not found in our cozy religious cocoon. We have allegedly constructed these religious boundaries to protect "the truth" but instead we have created a hedge to keep out those who need to hear that truth. I have been in far too many gatherings where "outsiders" feel uncomfortable and that is not their fault. It is ours and it needs to change.  If we aren't sharing the Gospel we are guilty of hiding it. None of us should desire to explain how we hid the light of the Gospel under a basket or buried the talent to our Lord.