Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas, humanity and divinity of Jesus, and mystery

I'm holding two things together as I walk through this Christmas season. It's also something we are intentionally holding together in this new church- The Bridge- that is beginning.

The two things go something like this: the confession about nature of Jesus' humanity and divinity and how mystery enfolds this very truth.

On the one hand, I believe and live out of the reality that the Church has said in all traditions and in all of history: God became flesh and blood in Jesus- God, the Son (and our new church has also been built on "orthodox" Christian teachings and beliefs). This is the meaning of the Incarnation: God becoming flesh. Yes, we say, Jesus is fully human. And, yes, we say, Jesus is fully divine.

Historically, those in the more conservative stream have backed away or have had fear in naming the humanity of Jesus. Some in more liberal streams have been hesitant or reject acknowledging the full divinity of Jesus. The Church, throughout history, has said both.

I readily acknowledge this truth.

And...I also live with mystery in attempting to grasp this marvel that has changed my life and countless others. I echo the feelings of Madeleine L'Engle, "Don't try to explain the Incarnation to me! It is further from being explainable than the furthest star in the furthest galaxy." I am uncomfortable when we try to explain this, robbing this truth of its mystery.

But, this are not mutually exclusive: the truth that God became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth (God in flesh and blood) and that we can't explain this entirely. We live with this grand mystery that has changed our lives forever!

This is a mystery. A wonderful, powerful mystery! And, I pray words like the Church throughout history about The Story in which we are living our stories. Prayers like these, that are in "The Divine Hours" (Phyllis Tickle, p. 431) as part of my daily prayer: "Purify my conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in me a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen."

"Joy to the world! The Lord is come!"

Saturday, December 13, 2008


What about "Christianity" would be attractive to some of our neighbors or others on the "outside?" For that matter, attractive to "insiders?"

That's a topic that could fill pages of blogs, books and engage one in hours of discussion...and it has. I'm prompted by some insightful proddings, and credible research, by Alan Kreider in a small (out of print, I believe) book, "The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom." It examines early Christianity and includes this idea of the attractiveness of these early Christians and churches/communities.

Specifically, I am thinking about belief, belonging and behavior, which Kreider traces with respect to conversion and the changes in history.

A nugget: "The early Christians lead us to reconsider the balance of ingredients in conversion...They did of course emphasize right beliefs...But the emphasis in the early Christian liturgies of a radical shift in the believers' sense of belonging...seems extreme to us. Even stranger to the focus on transformed behavior." (p. 103) This was one of the very attractive pieces for those on the outside looking in, says Kreider.

Little is different today. Perhaps even more so in a "Post Christendom" culture where the church is again moving to the margins as in the first centuries.

While "right beliefs" are important (e.g. God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; God Incarnate, Jesus- the mystery of his full divinity and full humanity; the redemptive work of God in Christ-the victory of Christ over the powers of evil, sin and death; the centrality of the Kingdom of God; God's reconciling work with a new heaven and new earth) this is not the primary thing attractive to those who have not entered God's story. I do not find people, as a whole, looking for a "good set of beliefs."

What will indeed be compelling is the observation of people with a consistent way of living who, while stumbling, display love, fairness, justice, have compassion for the poor and discarded in society, forgiveness, gentleness- in a culture of violence, sexual morality, and so on (behavior). That is...will any of this make a difference in how I live?

Further, it is compelling to see a living, breathing group of people sharing their lives, serving one another, taking care of the needs of one another in the group, praying for each other, and not just living isolated lives (belonging). That is...will I have others to walk with me in community?

I am aligned with Kreider's thesis that the early Christians' conversion (the message of Jesus that sets people free, opens up abundant life) changed the nature of- quite radically, in fact- behavior and belonging as well as belief. As the church lives out this new life in Christ (behavior), and has a genuine level of community (belonging), rooted in their beliefs, and as it is "sent" into the middle of life in the world, I believe these will be the most attractive elements for a life with God-- especially, living in a world wandering in narcissism, individualism, consumerism, violence and with little sense of a moral center.

That gives me hope- to consider being part of such a community of Jesus' followers!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Yard sign during the election

I'm squeamish when talking about politics and the church since I have witnessed its abuse over and over again. I was hesitant to put a sign in the yard for a presidential candidate as I didn't want this to be perceived as a pastor indicating that this is "the" way one should vote.

But, it felt different this year, and for the first time in my life as a pastor, our church community had a discussion about the election- should one vote as a follower of Jesus? If so, what should be the values that help guide that decision? So, we put a sign in a yard. And even though it may appear trivial, I didn't want to say in this setting whose name was on that sign until after the election.

When I had finished mowing my yard in mid-October, and I was sweeping off the driveway, my neighbor across the street hollered, "I like your yard. I mean, I really like your yard since the yard sign went up." (pointing to the Obama/Biden sign) "Oh, yeah?" I said. I started meandering across the street to his driveway where he was shooting some hoops.

He is about 23 years old, working on his MBA and living at home temporarily. This was going to be his 2nd presidential election in which he would vote. I'm 53 and this was to be my 9th. "You like it, huh?" He begins to tell me that this is how he is leaning but he hasn't made the final decision yet.

And what he said next is why I mention who I voted for. He said, "I'm surprised, though, with your sign. You're a pastor in one of those evangelical churches, right? [It would be too complex to get into some theological discussion of where I fit, so I just said, "Yeah, sort of."] "Well, I thought all of you pastors vote for the more conservative, Republican candidates, especially because of their view on abortion. So, why are you voting for Obama?"

We had a great, short discussion. I was able to say that when I vote, I take into consideration a list of values, growing out of my faith in Christ, that includes abortion, as well as, policies and positions related to poverty, education for children in poor communities, issues related to justice for the poor, minority populations, and others, gender issues, war, death penalty, etc., etc. This was the first time he heard those issues from a pastor. I asked him what issues were important to him and it was a wonderful exchange.

I'm not here to advocate that this was the "right" candidate. But, I am happy for a growing group of those in the evangelical community who are saying there are many more issues than just abortion that should matter to us.

Not only am I opposed to the concept that if you are a committed follower of Jesus you will vote for this candidate (fill in the blank). But, I also do not place my greatest hope in the ballot vote for a candidate; I believe a much greater impact is found when a community of those who follow Jesus embody his life in them, living it out in their context. So, I'm with a growing group of voices like Greg Boyd and Shane Claiborne who point to this reality.

So, in four years, maybe I'll vote, maybe not. Maybe I'll put a candidate's sign in my yard, maybe not. But, I do hope our church will be growing, day by day, in what it means to be the church, a church incarnate embodying hope, forgiveness, justice, equity, courage, compassion, grace, loving one another and enemies, and living in the way of Jesus.

That's my most significant vote.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

This justice thing

I'm reading a remarkable book, one to digest, savor and not let the words die when it finds a home on my bookshelf. At the same time, our new church, all of ten weeks old, is in prayer and discussion on very specific ways we will go to Kingdom-work in serving others and seeking to do justice. This is built into what we see this good news of Jesus Christ to be about.

Three thoughts from this book are on my mind this morning, and they feed into what we are considering as a community seeking to follow Jesus in the way of service, social justice, compassion and peacemaking. This is from N.T. Wright's most recent book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

First: in building for the Kingdom with respect to our calling and mission as the church, Wright notes that justice is not an add-on. With regard to the specific issues in our day and context, he believes "the major task that faces us in our generation, corresponding to the issue of slavery two centuries ago, is that of the massive economic imbalance of the world." (p. 216) He calls this the "number one moral issue of our day." If this is on target, what does this imply for the mission of the church?

The second thing that I am pondering this morning is the idea of holiness. Oh, boy; sounds real "churchy" or religious. Without going down some rabbit trails on this term, and some of the intricate biblical definitions, for our purposes here I'll use it to mean: seeking to live our lives in concert with the ethics, values and morality of the Kingdom of God. God is holy; we seek to live our lives as God revealed himself in Jesus.

One of Wright's phrases is particularly relevant here: "Christian holiness consists not in trying as hard as we can to be good but of learning to live in the new world created by Easter....Personal holiness and global holiness belong together." (p. 253) Our personal lives are not isolated and severed from the call to do justice and to be a voice that will address specific issues of social injustice. If we are not endeavoring to live a just life, it will be difficult to call for justice in other places.

The third nugget is that we need one another. The "church." Or whatever we want to name this (sometimes a name loses its meaning if it is distorted over time)- community of faith, a community of Jesus' followers, etc. We will be called individually, in clusters or collectively as a church to serve needs in our city or to be agents of the Kingdom helping to bring about justice. And, in Wright's words, "All will need one another for support and encouragement. All will need to be nourished by the central, worshipping life of the church." (p. 268)

I find energy in considering these aspects for our church, and, I would suggest, for other churches and communities. These have concrete, practical application for the church:
  • We will need to be people of prayer and discernment to be led to the specific areas where we are called to serve and to address social injustice. What are the great moral issues of our day? What are we called to do as individuals and as a community?
  • The connection between personal and global holiness is especially vital today. Many are disillusioned with the "church" because of the disconnect many see or perceive. People want to see what we say. This is not about perfection; it is about spiritual transformation.
  • This must all be based in community. We are not isolated islands of individuals. When we are called by God to serve in a particular capacity (tutoring disadvantaged kids, feeding a homeless population, visiting a discarded, lonely senior, becoming an agent of change for in public housing, etc.), we will need support from others. And this is not just any community; it is spiritual community rooted in Jesus. We need life and nourishment that comes from prayer, scripture, and worship of God, the source of our life.

The possibilities are endless for a community of hope!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I was riding my bike, minding my own business…

I had my next post almost written in my head, and then I went on a bike ride…

Then a new idea popped up on the ride. It had to do with peace and war, and a guy driving a pick-up truck that was being totally ridiculous. Those who know me understand how much I love biking. Road biking in the Denver area. It’s a gorgeous early evening, perfect weather and I hopped on my bike for an hour ride.

The sky is turning colors as the sun is going down- blue, pink and blistering orange. My heart rate is up because I’m getting a decent workout, but my “heart” is at peace because I’m relaxed and loving the ride! We all have things that renew and bring life, clearing the mind and soul. Biking is one of those things for me.

The ride is great until… this huge, apparently new black pick-up starts to veer to the right in my direction. Toward the bike lane. The well-marked bike lane on the right. I had ridden along the Cherry Creek Reservoir and then went outside the park on some roads next to the park to vary my ride.

This was late in the afternoon/early evening and there was a long line of traffic waiting for the red light. I’m cruising on the bike path, with other bikers that day, and approach the light. “Why is that truck starting to head toward the bike path, off the road??,” I wondered. As I got closer, it was obvious he was trying to nudge me off the road. I slowed down and he kept inching over into the bike lane. I could see him looking my way in the rear view mirror.

Instead of an absent-minded driver, here was a guy intentionally moving into the bike lane when he sees this bike ready to pass him in the bike lane. What’s the deal?! Actually, a few other words went through my mind, muttering them under my breath, but I can’t put them down here!

As I barely made it past him, almost getting knocked off the path, my thoughts go down this path: Ok, so you don’t bike or jog or whatever and you’re ticked off when you see persons working out….You’d probably have a gun rack in your rear window if it was legal in the city…Then some other prejudiced thoughts leaked out.

I’ll never know what was going through his head: it might be some stupid insecurity, or he’s frustrated at a long line at the traffic light, or he had a bad day at work. Who knows. Whatever it was, he was still being nasty for whatever reason. And, I was upset. Angry.

Now here’s the good thing about biking for me: in the grandeur of creation, with blood pumping into my body, God seems to speak to me quite often. (Not that “speaking” of an audible voice but with nudges and thoughts.) And, it happened that day.

Like this…What are you thinking, Phil? Are you going to turn this into hate for your “truck-enemy?” Ok, so he’s being a jerk- for whatever reason; but hate won’t win. Further, if you can’t work at the love-the-enemy-thing for the dude in the black truck, how are we going to work at communicating this Kingdom message to broader and more perilous situations of violence and war?

Busted! Alright; I get it! So, after I had some time to reflect a bit, and when he finally got through the red light and passed me, I reluctantly prayed for him. There wasn’t a gush of warm, fuzzy feelings. But, I prayed for the guy, and it was a start to diffusing of the anger.

A lesson on praying for and loving our enemies, as Jesus calls us to do. Now, I don’t suggest that there is a direct parallel to this situation and the decision to dropping horrific bombs and killing thousands of people. I believe issues of violence and war are areas for the church to address, live out and be prophetic for the sake of the good news. However, I was reminded of how all of this must start from within- having our heart continue to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus- this Jesus who has called us to these very things.

Peace (shalom= wholeness, well-being, peace) is not just peace within or peace in one’s heart. But, it is hard to display the outer forms and actions of non-violence and peace without the inner work of peace.

I don’t always succeed in this; I’m still a work in process of being transformed into the likeness of Christ. But, this also was a result: by God getting it through my thick head, and heart, that I should pray for that guy, I was released from a spirit of retaliation and the rest of the bike ride was great!

Want to guess how the rest of the bike ride would have gone if I held onto the resentment, listing the reasons in my head this guy is crazy??

(Next: a follow up to my presidential candidate’s sign in our yard.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

They say there is an election in two weeks

Ok, cut this guy some slack. I'm trying to get rolling with my blog. I resonate with Greg Boyd when he said last year, "To be honest, I don't get this blogger thing at all...I'm sure it's because I'm almost 50."

I'll figure it out as I go, I'm sure.

A thought came to me when I was on a bike ride last week: putting that campaign sign up in our yard, for one of presidential candidates, evoked some conversation in the neighborhood. Neighbors tend to keep to themselves in our neighborhood and there isn't a ton of chatting. But, the sign prompted more talk than usual.

Like when there's a snow storm and everyone is outside shoveling their driveways and the conversation picks up. Or, when we had that terrible rain storm and flooding in Indianapolis and neighbors were pitching in to help, or at least, commiserate together.

Some interesting things happened due to that sign (the first time I put a sign out for a presidential candidate). It's worth a few more lines, at least for me.

But, I decided against writing about it until November 5th or later. The primary reason: from my years as a pastor I do not want to be seen as endorsing a specific candidate. So, I'll wait until November 5th to say more about this; it won't be primarily about the specific candidate as it is the broader issues pertaining to faith, politics, and so forth. (This might appear contradictory since I have a sign in my yard! Fair enough. But, I view it as my expression in my neighborhood.)

Here's what I can say now. This current election has stirred up a chunk of emotions. Other presidential elections have, as well. It has eaten into a lot of my time over the past year, whether it is reading the New York Times or Denver Post, Newsweek or Time, the Jon Stewart Show or CNN, Sojo or Christianity Today, Googling, Youtube or...blogs!

When you have the Democratic National Convention in your own city, you are bombarded with the news and the city is alive in new ways. Gail and I read, watch, view and engage in conversations with others and then spend time on our walks or over dinner comparing notes and ideas.

Here's the thing: I have got caught up in this and get fooled into thinking that it is more than it truly is. In Kingdom of God terms, that is. Considering, praying and discerning who might be a better candidate for President is worthwhile. It can play a role in what we think will be a more humane society, striving for the common good in a nation. But, it's not the most important piece.

What I find more crucial- much more critical, in fact, is what followers of Jesus are actually doing. Those communities (ok, I'll say "church," if you understand that I'm not talking about some institutional reality) who gather, talk, build community, worship, study, pray, and then act on that commitment to Jesus to the poor, marginalized, lost, suffering and broken in their sphere. That's where the primary action is.

You don't have to choose: do I vote or do I become part of community seeking to live out the way of Jesus in one's city or area? Both actions can flow out of one's faith. They do for me.

I see it like this: I will vote for one candidate who I believe holds positions that will help advance some of the areas for the common good in our nation and world. But, it doesn't hold a candle to gathering on Sunday nights (when our new church meets) to eat, hang out, pray, read Scripture, put together Mennonite Central Committee relief kits for people in Iraq, Nicaragua, Haiti, etc. and discern together how to live out the way of Jesus in serving people in our city.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

1st blog post..."mission statement"

Anyone who knows me is aware that I’m a couple of steps behind the majority culture when it comes to technology. When my friends, family and colleagues were well on the way with email, years ago, I resisted. I had my arguments lined up for debate: “There’s no substitute for the ‘high-touch’ forms of communicating- in person or on the phone.” “Communication could slide into being impersonal; even the hand-written note conveys something about the personal nature of what I want to communicate that an email could never do.” “This could lead to further breakdown of community.” I had my reasons.

That was then and this is now: how could I exist without email?

“I-pod? I’m fine, thank you, with my CDs. Saving songs to I-tunes and purchasing songs will be time consuming.” Guess who listens to his I-pod on bike rides and working out at the fitness center?

Then: “Digital camera? Is it necessary?” Now: “Why didn’t you guys tell me about this before?!” In the past I kept my list of contacts in the back of my Franklin Covey Planner (nope, I haven’t switched to a PDA yet), whereas now, I run down the cell number, email, home address, and personal information in my Contacts in Outlook.

It won’t take Albert E’s keen intellect to deduce that I’ve been late to the blogging scene. I’ve been pushed and poked and prodded by friends and family to consider my own blog.

My read is that there are tons of reasons why people blog and some that are great and some that are, uh, not so great.

So, here’s my primary motivation for this blog: the start of our new church and community in Denver. This is one vehicle to communicate the vision, hopes and direction of this church for participants and for those who may be interested. As well, I hope it can be a setting to offer some reflections- perhaps, on-the-ground theology and stories and ways of trying to live in this way of Jesus here and now. My hope is for conversation and engagement with interested folks.

Blog entry number 1…

Some of you will know that we are starting a new church in Denver (I’ll have much more to say about this in the future; since we are just getting started and only three weeks old, and no website yet, I’m very happy to communicate personally about this). It will be affiliated with the Mennonite Church (I’ll try to dispel some of the myths about Mennonites in the future- no, we’re not Mormons, I don’t have a horse and buggy, my wife does not wear a white bonnet, and I like to dance).

But, we will be more than that and not linked to some of the historical, cultural expressions of the Mennonite Church, e.g. dress, style of worship, family ancestry and so on. For example, with the beginning group in this church, only a minority of the persons are from any Mennonite Church background. It will be tied to faith values of personal relationship with God, serving one another and the world, social justice, peace and endeavoring to be a visible expression as a community of Jesus’ followers here and now.

One further thought. I’m reading a book by N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, and a potent line jumped out at me. (He wants to have us rethink a popular notion going around for some time: that the point for Christians is all that matters is getting a “soul saved,” dying and then this disembodied soul goes off to heaven. It’s got to be more than this. I’m with him!)

So, this line jumps out at me, a good summary line. And, it occurs to me: this could be my “mission statement” of sorts. And our new church’s mission statement. And, something you might consider. Here goes:

“Our task in the present…is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day, with our Christian life, corporate and individual, in both worship and mission, as a sign of the first and a foretaste of the second. (p. 30)

I like this. I like this a lot. I have never written a personal mission statement that I have laminated and tacked to my office wall. But, this feels like a mission statement I could live with.

This is part of what I’m seeking to do: live as a resurrection person, in between Easter and the final day, and that this life can be a sign of the first (Easter) and a foretaste of the second (final day). That’s what I seek to be in my marriage, how I treat the clerk at King Soopers or the waitress at McCormick and Schick’s who brings drinks and appetizers, why our recycling bins are full each week, why I pray for those who see me as their enemy, why we put relief kits together for persons in Iraq…actually, for every facet of my life. I falter, ask for forgiveness, and keep going.

Hey, I think this is a compelling mission statement. I think many in the world are looking for this type of visible Christianity. Not just talk and theology and statements of faith, but living “testaments” of faith as resurrection people, here and now.

That’s the hope for my life. That’s the hope for this new church and community in Denver.