Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Learning To Talk Again

The pressure to find solutions for people in pain is powerful.  A friend comes to you with a need or an emergency in a relationship and you feel put on the spot to come up with a piece of advice that will help ‘solve the situation.’ The pressure is even more powerful if you are a Christian talking with another Christian about the stresses and strains in life.  We have created an atmosphere of therapeutic solution finding that has put all of us in a bind.

Crabb believes we are missing the boat entirely.  He is not against finding solutions as such, but he is clear that we miss the mark more often than not in that we simply do not know how to talk with each other out of the depths of what God is doing in each of us.  We like to talk across the surface of things.  It is just easier to do that.  We feel the urge to jump into a conversation and offer some soothing piece of comfort, offer accountability, or the magic pill that will offer the solution to a deeply complicated problem.

So instead of talking out of our own wit, wisdom, or fear, Crabb offers a new way of looking at relationships and life – SoulTalk.  SoulTalk is his way of leading us into a conversation where God is at the center of every life and every relationship in every situation.  He argues that we do not really know how to talk this way and his book offers a series of steps that help us break bad, religious habits and enter into God’s way of working in people’s lives.

I found Crabb’s formulation of SoulTalk to be deeply freeing and rightly prioritized.  In my role as a pastor I am often with people who find themselves in over their heads, or who have finally decided to talk about God when life falls apart, and the unspoken expectation is that a conversation or two might just do the trick.  His advice is to stop talking and start learning how to listen to what the Spirit is doing and wants to do in an individual’s life.  The primary goal in each SoulTalk conversation is not empathy or solution-finding, but Spirit-finding.

Along the way he has a lot of things to say about the place of God in the Christian’s life that simply need to be heard in a Christian culture where we have exchanged Christ’s life for an expectation of blessing and prosperity.  What would happen if intimacy with God for Christ’s sake were more important to us than the cure to our cancer or the ‘fixing’ of a deeply hurting situation?  According to Crabb, when we put these kinds of things first, we find the greatest thing possible, and God begins to do the work in our souls that is needed.

I highly recommend this book for any believer interested in deepening their discipleship, understanding how to relate with others in Christ, and how to learn to listen to the Spirit in all things.

This review is also posted on Amazon. Like if you found it helpful.

Monday, December 24, 2012

An Expanded Vision of Pentecostal Theology - An Initial Thought

I have spent my entire life in the Pentecostal church and now pastor in the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination.  I have seen a lot come and go, I have attended a lot of local, regional, and national meetings of Pentecostals, and I think I have a fairly good handle on what many (if not most) consider to be Pentecostal theology.  The core for many is the matter of speaking in tongues, and depending on your background, it broadens all the way out to praying for miracles and unique manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

I think if that defines our theology, our distinctive as Pentecostals, we have missed most of what was intended by the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Let me first say that I believe in the reality of those things, experience and practice them, and even pray for them.  I believe they have a powerful role in the lives of individual Christians and in the body of Christ.  I am not going to deny any of that, but I am going to argue for something that might strike some Pentecostals as bordering on wanting to have my papers revoked: all those things are derivative truths of Pentecostal theology.  By derivative I mean they are the logical theological extensions of what we believe about the power and reality of the Spirit of God.  Our distinctive theology ought to begin with a pneumatology and then lead to charismata, miracles, and so forth.  A Pentecostal theology that begins with a few effects and uses them to categorically define the cause will miss a lot of biblical insight, and in all honesty, will leave a lot of people undiscipled and badly formed.

If, however, we begin at the beginning – the nature and power of the cause of Pentecost – everything will begin to fall into place, including the more spectacular and public gifts of the Spirit.  The beginning is simply this fact: Pentecostals believe in the imminent, active, and powerful action of the Holy Spirit among the disciples of Jesus Christ, in His church, and in the world today.  If we use a framework like this to begin discovering the role of the Holy Spirit among believers, we have available to us the whole of Scriptural teaching on the Spirit.  If we open this conceptual door first, we become aware of so much more than just a few manifestations.

For instance, the fruit of the Spirit are Pentecostal realities.  Paul describes that familiar list as the consequence of the work of the Spirit, not the achieved character traits of really successful Christ-followers.  They are fruit – the inevitable consequence of healthy trees.  As such, the fruit of the Spirit are the character traits of the third member of the Trinity having his way within our lives.  If this is achieved by even a small group of disciples, we have people living with each other, God, and toward the world in love, joy, peace, patience, and so forth.  A more powerful and spiritual group of people would be hard to imagine, and if this isn’t Pentecostal I don’t know what is.

Then, keeping this same group of fruitful believers in mind, imagine them exercising gifts like glossolalia and prophecy.  They begin with a divine power and wisdom behind what they do and say with each other, so their expression of these unique gifts is filled with kindness, gentleness, faith, and so forth.  Has not every Pentecostal pastor prayed that when people express the gift of tongues and interpretation in public that they do so in a Christ-like fashion?  Is that frustrated prayer the reason why so many churches that are Pentecostal in theology are not so in practice?  How can we expect fruit-less believers to suddenly handle a gift with that much power and potency as if they were fruitful?

And yet, the standard Pentecostal model ignores the primary work of the Spirit, building Christ-like disciples, and emphasizes the effects and then we are frustrated when they are consistently abused and used to abuse.

I am aware of these kinds of conversations taking place in some academic circles, but it needs to be brought to pastors and church leaders.  After all, these are the front lines where most of the training in Christ-likeness takes place and where it too often suffers it most grievous losses.  The Holy Spirit is now God with us to enact the will and kingdom of God among his people and in his creation.  This is a vision so much larger than any of us can imagine, and so much larger than a short list of our favored spiritual gifts can ever encompass.  Let us begin with the presence and power of God among us first and then learn to talk about the expression of the Spirit among us.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Christians and Funerals

The Huffington Post posted a short piece by Jaweed Kaleem about the importance of eulogizing the dead.  While it appears that the practice of eulogizing, making good or kind remarks about the dead at their burial, is not always done, it can be a rewarding exercise for all involved.  I have been involved with more than one funeral where the eulogy was the most powerful part of the event.

But few know that the act of holding funerals for everyone is a distinctly Christian cultural artifact.  It might seem disrespectful to most westerners now to imagine not holding a funeral for someone, even if we did not know them well.  We have been trained to believe that it is respectful to have at least some form of remembrance when people pass away, no matter their social or economic status.  You can thank your Christian roots for that part of your moral compass.

It was not always the case that everyone enjoyed a funeral or a moment of silence.  As the Christian church was growing under the persecution of the Roman culture, most people did not rise to the social strata where they were worthy of a funeral at their death.  Only the wealthy and powerful were remembered, and the rest were thrown mostly into unmarked mass graves.

Now this is what happens when a culture is formed by a religion or worldview that does not hold to the inherent value of every single human life.  To the Romans, and the Greek tradition before them, most humans were not worthy of notice and lived to serve the desires of the gods and the earthly powerful.  So what happens when a religious tradition (the Jewish and Christian religions) grows in size and begins having its impact on that culture?

Lactanitus,(AD 240-320) “We will not allow the image and creation of God to be thrown out to the wild beasts and the birds as their prey; it must be given back to the earth from which it was taken.”

Lactanitus was a Christian convert who previously had been appointed by Emperor Diocletian to be the official professor or rhetoric in Nicomedia.  He grew up, was well educated, and succeeded in the Roman cultural system before he converted to Christianity.  He knew the Roman system, and his values changed radically as a Christ-follower.  At one time he would have believed as all Romans did that most people did not deserve a funeral.  As a Christian his view of humanity changed and as a result a core precept of his ethic changed – every human life is created in the image of God and is of ultimate value.

Funerals for the “unimportant” and the “poor” are a vestige of the Christian ethic that helped shape Western Civilization and much of the rest of the world.  When we “pay our respects” for people we barely knew we do so because of the deeply rooted truth in our culture that every human being is due at least that.  And without this part of the Christian influence, things might be very different.  It is the Christian doctrine of creation that imparts value to every human being, and without that doctrine it becomes hard to see how that value would be justified.  And clearly, as history shows us, it was not.

Some references:

How Christianity Change the World, by Alvin J. Schmidt

Thursday, December 06, 2012

A Naked Public Square?

Lawsuit Threat Cancels Christmas Concert (to benefit African children)

These kinds of stories are becoming more frequent around the Christmas holiday.  Some Christian group or church somewhere does something about Christ on Christmas, some atheist group complains, public officials get worried and the public display of a Christian Christmas is somehow muted.  Each circumstance is different, but there is an underlying assumption that needs to be challenged.

The atheist public square is not a religiously or morally neutral public square.  It is a false assumption, though a powerful one in our culture right now, that removing religious influence from culture somehow makes it more ‘neutral’ when it comes to religion and morality.  Atheism as a public disposition (what some have called the “naked public square”) is just as much a religious and moral statement as is the expression of Christianity.  

Why would I believe that public discourse where God is not a possibility is better than one where God is?

I have had several conversations in which people want to claim that atheism is the “objective” point of view simply and humbly aimed at the truth of the matter, while Christianity is opposed to reason and inquiry and forces belief on people.  This is a position argued for by the so-called New-Atheists, but it lacks the value of sustainability.  In arguing against the worldview of Christianity and for the worldview of atheism, people accept, both explicitly and implicitly, a set of moral and religious beliefs.

Instead of, “there is a God,” or, “there might be a God,” their assertion is, “there is not a God,” or, “there is probably not a God.”  Every one of those propositions will have consequences in the public square, and to deny that is to plead a special exemption for your point of view.  So if each assertion about ultimate reality has public consequences, then what is each believer to do?

Stand up in public and present the best case you can for your point of view.  If each has consequences that affect our lives in powerful ways, and they all do, then it really matters how they are presented to everybody else.

What should we avoid doing?  Exactly what is revealed in these kinds of stories – whine about Christians, squeeze them out of the public discourse, and pretend everything will go along as usual.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

People of the Book Who Don't Read

Christians have been called ‘People of the Book’ for centuries, which is ironic now because so few Christians read.  You might object that more and more books are sold through Christian book stores and online than ever before, but I would counter that most of what is sold is largely shallow and often even less useful than that, and how much of that is actually read?  I often run across Christians who want prayer and input on difficult situations in their lives and it is common for me and people in my position (pastors, etc.) to suggest books to help with the process.  More often than I would like to count, I receive the response, “I’m not a reader.”

It is an oxymoron for a Christian, someone whose faith is explained in the pages of a book, not to be a reader.  There are a myriad of reasons for why people read less and less, but I’m interested here with what happens to you when you don’t read – the Bible or good books.  You can’t not read and get away with it.

So, what happens to the Christian when they do not read?

Over time they can no longer understand their Bibles.

There is a lot of information in a Bible.  There are a lot of themes that trace themselves over hundreds of pages, through dozens of stories, several different forms of literature, and in plenty of doctrines and exhortations.  If a Christian’s primary source of analysis of the world comes in 6-minute increments with commercial breaks severed into even smaller segments then biblical comprehension will be difficult to say the least.

Over time they will misunderstand their Bibles and their faith.

Years ago I was teaching a college/young adult Sunday school class of about 60 people.  We did an exercise in which we traced a quotation from the Old Testament in the New Testament.  The plan, which I thought was highly useful, was to read the context of the OT passage and use that to help us understand the quotation in the New.  The first reaction I received was from a young school teacher who asked, “What do you mean by the context?” The exercise went downhill from there.

Modern media is almost utterly without context, or is at least designed to be consumed without context.  Sitcoms need laugh lines every few seconds.  Linear thought is unnecessary to consume most pop culture.  Popular songs are 3 ½ minutes long as opposed to the popular orchestral pieces played to the masses 250 years ago.  A Christian must fight against the soul malformation that happens in pop culture, tune out of it, and learn to read and think.

Over time they will be mislead about what their faith teaches.

Your Bible requires attentive reading.  Without it individual passages become bludgeons in the hands of all kinds of nefarious and heretical schemes.  Many aggressive atheists do not understand Scripture because they believe they have a handful of knock-down passages which show the Bible to be awful and irrational.  Every one of those I have encountered have been squeaky toys in the hands of children – a lot of annoying noise, no real damage done.  Cults twist passages in ways that make sense to Christians who don’t read.  Pop culture mocks Christianity in ways that frighten Christians who don’t read.

Over time they will stop reading their Bibles altogether.

Why continue to read something so large and difficult to understand when I can get a minute-long devotional from my favorite teacher addressing a practical need in my life which does not even need to reference Scripture or theology?  Isn't it all the same if I come out OK, act like a nice person, and learn how to be a better husband and manage my money a little better? A proof text without context is practically useless.

So what is a Christian to do?  Does it need to be said?  Read.  Read your Bible on a regular basis and read good books which help you understand what is going on in your Bible.  Read an entire New Testament Epistle in one sitting.  Learn to read everything through the lens of orthodox Christian doctrine.  Get used to finishing larger and larger books.  Find a few authors who are good at what they do and can challenge you to reach a little further.

You might be surprised how much better you will be for it.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

An 8th Reason Why

In his post, “7 Reasons America Has Not Been Reached for Christ,” I believe Greg Stier has some very important things for the church to hear and fix.  In every point he is right about our neglect.  I would simply add one more that might be a bit more conceptual but crucial nonetheless – We don’t know the Gospel anymore.

Stier mentions that we are ashamed of the Gospel and that church leaders are no longer leading the cause of spreading the good news, and he is right.  In addition I believe a growing number of Christians (possibly an alarmingly large percentage of them?) no longer truly believe Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.  In other words it is quite possible that American Christians have lost their urgency to proclaim the Gospel because they no longer think it is necessary to do so.  They have become soft religious relativists.

I taught ethics on the college level for both a community college (younger students), and at a university adult education extension and I found both demographics struggled with making arguments for the rightness or wrongness of ethical points of view, not to mention the inherent exclusivity of truth itself.  And as a pastor for going on 20 years now, I’m not so sure I can label “them” as the only relativists out there.

A Christian does not know the Gospel when they do not believe it is the only message of good news and reconciliation between the Creator and his creation.  A believer does not have a solid intellectual grasp on their faith if they are willing to believe that other religions are basically the same, and in so doing, neglect the urgent task of being ambassadors for Christ.

In addition to his 7 Reasons, could it also be the case that American Christians are simply losing their grasp on several of the essential tenants of the faith?