Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Responding to Katrina

Please take a few moments to help with the Hurricane Katrina clean-up. You can click here to donate throught UMCOR, or call 1-800-554-8583, or you can bring a check to church this weekend and donate. You can write "UMCOR Advance #982523, Hurricanes 2005 Global" or even just "Hurricane Relief" on your check, and your church treasurer will get it to the right place.

Human life is so fragile. Katrina reminds us that all Mother Nature needs to do is shrug her metaphorical shoulders and we lose our tenuous hold. There will be dozens and dozens dead, hundreds injured, thousands homeless. They need food and water, clothing and shelter - back to the basics. Someone said on the radio that there have been entire towns completely washed away. I heard also that fist fights have broken out in shelters in New Orleans as people are pushed to the limits of their patience.

Please pray for the people who have been hit by this storm. Hope is as fragile as life.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Changing the "Change or Die" Attitude

I went to a meeting last Friday with Bishop Schnase and a dozen or so other church leaders, clergy and lay, from around the Kansas City area. We were invited to talk together about the Missouri Conference's inclination to change - change structure, change financing, change outlook, just change in general. It was supposed to be an informal chat among friends, with no binding decisions or recommendations for action taken. This afternoon, I sent the bishop and a couple of conference staff members a letter in response to the meeting. It is kind of long, but I hope you take a couple of minutes to read it. It kind of sums up some of my lament about the contemporary church. Here it is:

Dear Bishop Schnase,
Three days have passed since our Friday meeting, and I’m guessing you have received several “my two cents” letters from everyone else around that table at Woods Chapel. And, well, here’s mine!
First of all, I am sincere about my invitation to come hike a trail sometime when you are in the KC area. I try to make it a part of my Sabbath rest to surround myself with as much of God’s creation as possible, and have scouted out several pretty nice locations in the region. If you would like, give me a call and I’ll meet you somewhere.
Second of all, thank you for the time you have given in holding this series of meetings around the conference. I can imagine how daunting it must be to enter into Episcopal leadership of a conference in a time of uncertainty such as this. I hope the five meetings you have scheduled accomplish the purposes that you have in mind.
With that said, I am afraid that I rather “tuned out” during the afternoon portion of our meeting. I apologize. I was listening to the conversation, but did not have much to contribute myself. I thought that my rising frustration with the tone of the meeting would have come too close to the surface, and I wanted to keep that in check. In my opinion, the conversation degenerated from a constructive discussion of the health of the conference into a “Change or Die” conversation. Ironically, “Change or Die” conversations directly expedite the demise of the organization having them, as they are more often than not self-fulfilling prophecies. And when the organization having them is the church, matters are even more dire.
When the church has a “Change or Die” conversation, it has great theological implications around the doctrine of resurrection. In short, do we believe in the power of resurrection or not? If so, why do we fear death at all? What if Jesus had said, “I had better change something about what I’m doing or else I’m going to die”? The church, as the continuing incarnation of the body of Christ in the world, need not worry about its own death, and when it does, something is seriously wrong. It is not a matter of saving the church; it is a matter of saving souls. It is a matter of faithfulness to the evangelistic mission to which God has called us, faithfulness even unto death. And for a people with a healthy doctrine of resurrection, the possibility of death is not a source of fear. In fact, it is not even a concern. This may be too radical to mention in mixed company, but perhaps we are called to continue doing what we are doing until we “die,” simply because what we are doing is right. I believe God will find a way to work in this world, because I believe in the power of the resurrection.
Furthermore, as I tried to point out at the meeting, the question at hand is not “are we ready to change?” but rather “how are we going to respond to the changes that are already happening?” [Someone] asked the question, “Are we all agreed that we need to change?” and I tried to push the question a little. Most people at the meeting seemed to think I meant that the world is changing already, so the church had better change, also. But that is not what I said at all. I mean to say that the church is changing already, and the question is how to embrace that (or not). [A pastor at the meeting] asked me, “Don’t you want to make a mega-church in North Kansas City?” and I did not answer him, because his question is a symptom of the problem I see. My answer to that question without a doubt would have been “absolutely not.” Making mega-churches is not the mission, the mission is to convey the love and grace of God to all creation, making disciples of Jesus Christ in the process, and if God desires it, perhaps a mega-church will bloom. The church has changed, and the businesslike mega-church model just isn’t going to be primary any more. The trend of the eighties and nineties was toward large, high-intensity organizations that were demanding, strictly organized, and centered around belief, morality, and membership. That has all changed. Smaller, more intimate communities of faith that are open, relaxed, and center around experience, encounter, and relationship are the present trend.
And so I need the conference to be the connection. I need to be connected to the churches in my area, my district, and my conference. The relationships we build as the connection allow us to do ministry in ways that individual congregations are unable to do alone. Faithful participation in the connection is a sign of a healthy congregation, just like our other five categories. My major disconnect from Friday’s conversation happened when I realized everyone there was in “Change or Die” mode. I hope that somehow we are able to completely reframe the conversation to remove any mention of the notion that, if we don’t do (x) the congregation/conference/church is going to die. I hope we can move back to starting the conversation by asking the question, “What is the best way to convey the love of Christ to a world that so desperately needs an encounter with the living Spirit of God?”
Thank you for taking the time to read my two cents. I want you to know that you have my full support. As my bishop, please let me know how and where I can best serve the church.

Grace and Peace,
Andy Bryan

Now, before anyone even mentions it, my invitation to go hiking with the bishop was not an attempt at "sucking up." If I was going to suck up to the bishop, I would be much more subtle than that, and besides he would see right through it, anyway. My invitation was sincere.

But as far as the rest of it, what do you think? Any questions? Some of the things I referred to were pretty specific to the Missouri Conference, but what are your responses in general? Am I in the ballpark? Am I even playing the same sport?

Feedback please,
Andy B.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Cooler Head?

I just reread what I wrote yesterday about Pat Robertson. Holy moly, was I ever mad! Of course, the story is all over the news now, and just about everyone is running as fast as they can to distance themselves from Robertson's inflammatory remarks. I have read a few "no big deal"s and a few "well, maybe he is right"s along with a bunch of "this guy is insane"s.

I want to clarify what is at stake for me, and why for me this story is a very big deal. It has something to do with the notion that, "God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Cor. 12:24b-27). What Pat Robertson says is an infuriatingly big deal because his ideas are self inflicted wounds to the body of which he and I are both members.

One commenter on my last post asked me if I wasn't just as bad as Pat Robertson with my "Somebody stop this guy" remarks. Today I answer that astute observation with a resounding "Yes!" I am just as bad as Pat Robertson, because the mystery of Christian unity has connected me to him in such a way that I am intensely impacted by the words he is saying. In a sense, what he says, I say. It seems Christian unity is not something to be unquestioningly celebrated.

And so I got angry. I am still angry. I believe my indignation to be righteous in this case. But after a day's worth of reflection, I am beginning to more clearly understand why.

Still thinking,
Andy B.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Yeah, What He Said

Click here to read something much more eloquent and much less tongue-in-cheek but exactly the same sentiment I expressed in my last angry post (just below). And thank you to Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler for being so much more calm and level headed than I am.

Pat Robertson, Assassin

By now you have no doubt heard what the alleged Christian Pat Robertson said about the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. Robertson said of Chavez, "...if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it."

Now let's stop right there for a moment. When Pat says "we," to whom do you think he is referring? The 700 Club? Wouldn't it be a hoot for all the little old ladies who watch Pat on TV to get together to plot that particular covert op? Do they make camouflage housecoats? Sharpen your knitting needles, ladies, we're going in!

Second question: When Pat says "assassinate," what do you think he has in mind? Like, as in actually kill the guy? That chapter of the Gospel according to John must have been ripped out of my Bible. You know, the chapter that tells about the time Jesus snuck up to the temple roof with a high powered rifle ... *uh* ... slingshot, and took out High Priest Caiaphas, who obviously was a threat to the security of the nation and a launching pad for pharisaic infiltration and Jewish extremism. Apparantly Pat the Assassin has that chapter in his version. May be a translation problem, I guess.

Pat the Assassin even has a justification for his murderous plot. Seems assassination would be more cost efficient than a war, not to mention that it is not as big a threat to an abundant oil supply. The Assassin says, "It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war ... and I don't think any oil shipments will stop." (Hey, to give the guy credit where it is due, he's a lot more honest than President Bush has been.)

But let's just stop right there for another moment and take this opportunity to remind ourselves that Pat the Assassin claims to be a Christian person. What's more, he is a seminary graduate. It seems like he maybe ought to know better. This is more serious than "well, he is entitled to his own opinion." This is not a diversity thing. This person is grossly misrepresenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ on nationwide television, and he has got to be stopped.

Speaking myself as one who claims to be Christian, I can say with the certainty of faith that Pat the Assassin's ideas are about as far from Christian as you can get. As one of my good friends says with frequency, "I guess God made a few people that even He don't like."

Speaking myself as an American, I can say with certainty that Pat the Assassin should be criminally prosecuted for his inflammatory statements. At least conspiracy, if not something like instigating outright terrorism.

Somebody shut this guy up before he erodes any shred of relevance the church of Jesus Christ may still feebly grasp. Somebody stop this hateful man before he dumps a bucket of water on the last remaining embers of credibility the United States holds in the global community. President Hugo Chavez may very well be a jerk, he may be unfriendly to U.S. interests, he may be a chronic bed-wetter, I don't know! That's not the point.

The point is that an allegedly Christian leader has unapologetically called for the murder of another person, and that really pisses me off. The point is that Pat Robertson is a threat to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, while simultaneously claiming to represent that very same Gospel. He is a wolf wearing the Lamb's clothes, and he is deadly dangerous.

Wow! That guy makes me mad,
Andy B.

P.S. I read here that Robertson is ordained in the Southern Baptist Church, but can't find out much more info about that. Anyone else know if he is ordained for sure?

Monday, August 22, 2005

Stinking Rich

I am embarrassed to tell you how rich I am, based on my salary. Have you ever thought about how rich you are? If you are reading this blog via your own computer, you are rich. Click here to go to a little website that will show you what percentile you are in on a global scale in terms of wealth.

I used to say "I'm not rich." But that all changed one day in the marketplace of Chichicastenengo, Guatemala. I was with a group of seminarians, and we were being targeted by the trinket sellers. I suppose we looked a tad bit gringo-ish. But, knowing that we were going to the market, I was ready to buy a few things and then hit my limit and stop. I practiced saying "Tengo no dinero" (I have no money) so that I could tell the merchants that they would have no luck with me this day!

The very first time I tried that line, I was speaking with a beautiful young woman with long dark hair dressed in a wonderfully brightly colored outfit, and holding a tray full of little dolls. I smiled at her and confidently said, "Tengo no dinero." Returning my smile and not missing a beat she looked right at me and in wisdom and in truth said, "Yes, you have money. You are American."

And she was right. I may not have had cash, but I was carrying a camera worth several hundred dollars and if I could have popped into a bank I could have walked out with as much cash as I needed via that deadly little piece of plastic in my wallet. Not to mention the fact that any of a dozen relatives were just a phone call and a Western Union wire away from hooking me up with whatever financial assistance I might need at a moment's notice. Yes, she was right, I had money.

Truth is, I am filthy rich when compared to the world. The standards are all out of whack when you are thinking globally. My family lives in a three story, four bedroom, three and a half bathroom home in a suburban neighborhood. Families three times bigger than mine live in one room houses that a U.S. citizen would call a "hut" or even a "shack." But my huge house is not even close to the size of some of the castles around here. And some of those homes have two or three people rattling around in them.

The typical response to laments like this goes like, "Thank God you are blessed enough to live in a country where the standard of living is such that ... blah, blah, blah. Our free market system makes it possible for you to live like ... yadda, yadda, yadda. You should be happy to be living in a democracy where you are free to get a job that ... etcetera, etcetera, etcetera." And to this response, I say a meager, ambivalent, "Yes, but ..."

My "yes, but" comes from hearing something about mountains and hills being made low, while every valley is lifted up. I seem to remember something about a certain group of people sharing everything one with another, as each had need. I may have read somewhere about taking care of widows, orphans, those who are poor, hungry, naked, homeless, or sick. I'm pretty sure I've read that stuff somwhere before. Now, hmm ... let me think about it. Where did I read that again? Must have been a pretty good book ...

According to this Global Rich List website, I'm in the top .753% of the wealthiest people in the world. And believe me, I am so grateful that my family has enough to eat, a place to live, and clothes to wear. I am extra grateful for a few amenities like this computer, toys for my kids, two functioning cars, and all that stuff piled in the storeroom that we don't need anymore and need to have a garage sale soon to get rid of. But there are 5,954,802,035 people in the world who are poorer than I am. What is my Christian moral responsibility in light of that reality?

$tuck, Andy B.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Flying Spaghetti Monster

Do you need a laugh? Ready for a ray of sunshine to illuminate your dark mood? Feeling rather irreverent and need a dose of pseudo-sacreligious satire?

Check this out: Click
here to enjoy the tongue-in-cheek humor of this new religious phenomenon.

(Remember, it is for fun! It is not real! It is fiction! (Even though it is blatantly heretical(See my
previous blog post re: fiction's threat to flimsy faith))).

Still Laughing,
Andy B.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Prayer for Brother Roger

A ninety year old monk has been murdered. His name is Brother Roger, and he created the Taize community in France. Many have been there on spiritual pilgrimage, and many more have sung some of the songs created for worship there. The Taize community, like Brother Roger himself, is dedicated to spirit-filled worship and international, ecumenical spiritual formation.

here to read the story of his murder. Click here to read my brother-in-law's story from Taize, which is very moving. Click here to visit the Taize website.

It is a sad, sad story. This is my prayer at the time of this tragic loss:

God of life and peace,

Hear my prayer.
Recieve Brother Roger into your heavenly embrace.
I only knew him through the music,
yet he was a brother to me.
Now there is eternal music, surrounded
by his dear sisters and brothers for whom he cared so deeply.
May we all be granted a glimpse
of the vision he now sees with newly opened eyes.
May we all hear but a fleeting strain
of the divine chorus in which he now sings.
May we all feel but a meager wisp
of the refreshing breeze of your spirit in which Roger now dwells.
Thank you for Brother Roger,
and for allowing us to share for a while
in all that he did on this earth.
In Christ,

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The DaVinci Code Movie - HERESY!

What makes a heresy heretical?

When I read today about Westminster Abbey refusing to allow "The DaVinci Code" movie crew film in their cathedral, I just had to chuckle. The issue is a heresy, namely the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was married, had children, and has living descendents. This belief is a basis for the (very exciting) plot line of Dan Brown's novel, now being made into a movie, and it has offended many defenders of Christian orthodoxy. "No heresy in our town!" is the rallying cry of those who would deny Ron Howard et al to set up shop and make their movie.

Now, in case I missed something, "The DaVinci Code" is in the fiction section of my local bookstore. Fiction! If ordained clergy were preaching odd things about Jesus' family life, that would be one discussion. But when a novelist uses the idea as a plot enhancement for his novel, that is another discussion altogether. Likewise, if Ron Howard was trying to convince residents of these towns of the truth of the heretical ideas, THEN we would have something to talk about. But as of now, all we have is a novel being made into a movie, and that seems to be somehow threatening several English Christians, who will do all they can to protect their fragile orthodoxy from any idea other than the ones they espouse. People, it is a movie!

Which brings me to my question du jour: What makes a heresy heretical? Does it depend on who is talking? Does Dan Brown saying it have as much weight as Walter Brueggeman saying it? And then, if Ron Howard makes a movie about something Dan Brown is saying, is Ron Howard a heretic by association?

Nothing I have ever read leads me to believe that Jesus married, had kids, and there are living descendents walking the earth today. It is hard to imagine that an idea of that magnitude could be successfully expunged from common knowledge for 2,000 years and counting. But on the other hand, nothing about that idea is such a threat to my own faith that I completely refuse to have anything to do with it. In other words, my faith is strong enough to survive any threat Ron Howard's movie might pose. It is just a movie. (Actually, it probably is going to be a pretty good flick; I love Tom Hanks!)

What makes heresy heretical? I think an idea becomes heretical when it is denigrated by the orthodox. Until then, it is just an idea. Only when the orthodox give the idea teeth does it threaten to bite. Ideas are threatening to us when we allow them to be, when we bestow them with undue importance. If we simply hear the idea, assess its merits, and then decide how to respond based on that assessment, everyone is going to be just fine, I promise! No one gets burned at the stake, no one gets excommunicated, and Ron Howard can film his movie in peace.

It's like saying that recent study has uncovered that Jesus of Nazareth had webbed toes. Until someone calls it a scandalous heresy, it is really just a silly story.

Sit on it, Richie,
Andy B.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Cindy Sheehan - Unanswered

For the past ten days, Cindy Sheehan has been camping outside of President Bush's ranch near Crawford, Texas. Her son Casey died on April 4, 2004 while fighting in Iraq, and she is responding in her grief by wanting some accountability, and her search for accountability has led her all the way to the president. To President Bush she asks, "You said he died for a noble cause. What cause?" She wants to meet with him, and has even invited him to a prayer service at noon this Friday.

There is a wide diversity of opinion about Sheehan's protest, as is to be expected. (See Michelle Malkin or Gold Star Families for Peace as examples). Supporters of the war in general do not support her, and opposers of the war in general do support her - with every shade of gray in between. Here's what I think.

Someone, somewhere high up in the halls of our government needs to say something like, "We were wrong. The Iraqi regime had little to no connection with Al-Quaeda, and in particular no connection with the specific terrorists who attacked the United States in 2001. And we were also wrong when we said that the Iraqi regime had weapons that were capable of wreaking unimagined mass destruction in the region. We understand that these were both rationale given for going to war, and they turned out to be wrong. We are very sorry."

There would be so much healing if something like that would happen. Oh, not for everyone, I'm sure. There would still be some who continued to push for complete and immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, which in my opinion would not be at all helpful. But many, many people are primarily hurt by the attitude of the Bush administration, which comes across as stubbornly defensive in most public appearances. I don't know exactly what Cindy Sheehan wants to hear from President Bush, but maybe some humble contrition would be welcomed. Maybe she wants him to quit saying her son was killed for a "noble cause" and start being honest about what exactly that cause was. One of the most difficult things we learn in kindergarten is how to say, "I am sorry." It is hard to do, but it makes everyone feel so much better when it is done.

I am thankful that Saddam Hussein is being held accountable for the atrocities he committed as dictator of Iraq. I am relieved that he is no longer in power. In his case, it seems that either violence (revolution, assasination, war) or his own death at a ripe old age would have worked to get rid of him. And the argument that Saddam at least provided a steady supply of basic needs for the people doesn't work with me, either. Peace is more than the absence of open conflict, and Iraq under Saddam was unquestionably not at peace.

And neither is it at peace today, going on three years and counting from the beginning of the U.S. invasion. And there is no end in sight. There is no mission accomplished. There is no peace.

Cindy Sheehan is the person at the tip of an enormous ice berg. She is articulating the feelings of more Americans than President Bush likes to consider. Many of us just want someone to say they are sorry and to be honest about it. Instead, we get smug grins and belligerent squints. Instead of honest responses to Cindy Sheehan's questions, we get, "This is America and she is entitled to her opinion." Yes, this is true - not open for debate. Now, put down that straw man and answer her questions!

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51.17)

Andy B.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Open Pulpit

I have this crazy idea. Before I tell you my idea, here's the background.

We have two worship services a week here at my remarkable congregation. The Saturday evening come-as-you-are service and the Sunday morning sanctuary service. Almost everyone who comes Saturday night also comes Sunday morning. For the past year, therefore, I have prepared and delivered two sermons per week, not wanting to bore people who come to the two services. As a result, I have felt theologically, emotionally, and physically dried up after every weekend. Something needed to change.

A mentor of mine once said the key to preaching better is preaching less often.

So, I am starting "Open Pulpit," a program designed for people who have a calling to preach but do not have the opportunity. (Also designed to alleviate the pressures of one of my two sermons per week!) Essentially, people call or email me up to two weeks in advance of a given Saturday night to sign up. Then the two of us discuss scripture, theme, music, and liturgy as we put the service together. The preacher comes as our guest and delivers the sermon while I serve as worship leader. Finally after the service, if the preacher would like, I offer to sit and discuss the sermon with them, providing any feedback I might be able to. There are already four people signed up, after just ten day's worth of pretty limited publicity!

Another mentor of mine made a comment about Tom Sawyer and painting a fence.

Notwithstanding that reaction, I can picture this program being good for
- associate pastors who don't have worship responsibilities,
- lay speakers with a passion for preaching,
- seminary students anxious to try out their wings,
- retired clergy with wisdom to share,
- youth trying to discern their call,
- adults trying to discern their call ;),
- church staff members with something to say about ministry,
- and a whole slew of other people with the desire and the integrity to preach the gospel.

There is a risk here, I know. I risk opening "my" pulpit to someone who will come in and say something that I completely disagree with. But the reality is it is not my pulpit at all. And I trust that the spirit of Christ will find a way to live and move and breathe no matter who is preaching. Sometimes the presence of Christ is experienced because of the preacher, and sometimes in spite of the preacher. I have heard sermons before that have made me cringe, as have all of you reading this, I'm sure. But we are all still here, still doing our thing, still living faithfully as the people God is calling us to become. So the risk factor is not a big issue for me.

We'll see how it goes. Wish us luck and say a few prayers. And if you would like, contact me to sign up for Open Pulpit some Saturday night in the near future. We'd love to hear what you have to say.

Grace and Peace,
Andy B.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

It's Cool

I learned the words of Psalm 40 from U2. Back in Junior High, they had this really great song called "40" on the "War" album. Back then, I remember us thinking it was "totally cool, dude!"

"I waited patiently for the Lord. He inclined and heard my cry," Bono mumbles in the opening strain. It was one of those lines that you had to really work hard to understand fully, rewinding the cassette tape four or five times to make sure you really got it. And then, once you got the words, you still had to really work hard to understand it fully. What exactly does it mean to say that God has "inclined" such that my meager cry could be heard? We didn't know for sure, but Bono was singing it, so we thought it must be cool.

"He brought me up out of the pit, out of the miry clay." Yes, this was a sublime poetic expression of human desperation - "the pit" and that "miry clay" that could cling at your feet and drag you down down down into despair and anguish. Man, that Bono can really turn a phrase. He is so cool!

"I will sing a new song." "Set my feet upon a rock." "Many will see and fear." Every line was a pearl of poetic profundity set to a rock and roll rhythm ... and God saw that it was cool.

Imagine my surprise the first time I read Psalm 40, verses 1 through 3 out of the book I perceived as definitely not cool, none other than the Holy Bible! At first, I was shocked that God would stoop so low as to steal U2's song. But then I realized that it was actually U2 singing the psalm! The psalm actually came first, and Bono wrote a song using it. And (big duh) that's why the song was named "40," which prior to this time I had never really figured out.

U2 singing a Bible song. I was astounded! Could the Bible be ... *gulp* ... cool?

Since that time, of course, I have noticed the Christian content of much of U2's music. In fact, I have noticed Christian content in a whole lot of popular (read that as: cool) culture that would not otherwise be considered Christian. It goes to show that the Gospel can be conveyed by a whole slew of different media. In other words, "When in themes of glory, I sing the new, new song 'twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long" (from the old, old hymn I Love to Tell the Story).

This leads me to some questions: Is the church trying to force the overwhelming power of the Christian Gospel into the same old medium? Is "the way we used to do it" still a sufficient means of conveying the love of Christ to our hurting, helpless world seeking meaning and purpose?

Here's a scary question: Is the church risking becoming irrelevant not only to our world, but also to God? In other words, if we (the church) are not careful, is God going to be looking for someone else (like, maybe U2) to convey divine love and grace into the world? I believe that God never gives up on people, but might God some day give up on the church?

Man, I hope not. I know with the certainty of faith that the church is still the best way to convey Christ's love, but I also think that if the church remains stuck in the miry clay of outdated ecclesiology, God will find another way to get the message across. I mean, God can use a silly story, a basket of fruit, or even a talking donkey to get the word out, so clearly God can use whatever God wants. After all it is the word of God we are dealing with, not the word of church.

I first heard Psalm 40 when Bono sang it. I figured out, because of him, that the Bible might just possibly be cool. (You might also use the word "relevant" in place of cool.) How will today's world get the message that God's word is cool for them? Will it continue to be through the church? Let us pray that it will be so.

Grace and peace,
Joe Cool

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Ecclesial Image Issues - Part Two: "Passion Without Honor"

I know this guy David only from reading his blog and his comments on mine.
He knows me only from reading my blog and my comments on his.

And yet, in spite of the limited nature of our virtual friendship, he has thrown down a gauntlet that I cannot help but take up. It seems that David wants me to do more than just point out the church’s problems, he actually wants me to offer some answers! (You know, for just a blog friend, he is pretty demanding.)

Okay, David, I have done a bit of deconstruction, now I will attempt something constructive. This response represents my opinion du jour, and if you ask me next week I may have something new and different to say. But here’s where I am right now.

In order for the church to respond to our image issues, we need to reclaim a healthy theology of the cross. Not the bloody sacrificial violently beaten up because I am so bad according to Mel Gibson kind of cross. That’s just gross. Mel Gibson’s Jesus is merely a prop, not an individual acting with a will of his own. I want to reclaim a healthy theology of the cross that acknowledges discipleship of Jesus (rather than church membership) as a meaningful life-path into right relationship with God.

I’m currently rereading “The Cost of Discipleship” and so maybe that is why I’m in my current mode of thinking. I never was a big Dietrich Bonhoeffer fan before, but I’m giving him a second chance. He says, “The figure of the crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard.” It seems to me that the church has taken success for its standard. We think our purpose is to succeed, and what’s worse we define this illusory ecclesial success with the very same earthly principles we use to measure the success of everything else, from the balance sheet of the corporation we work for to the new brownie recipe we just tried. (mmm … brownies) “If we are 'in the black' or if the brownies taste good, then we have succeeded … which means we must be doing what God is calling us to do,” is how the illogical yet common thinking goes.

And what do we mean when we say a church is “succeeding?” Lots of people, (and more and more people every week), lots of money, lots of programs, super-cool facility, high-tech sanctuary, snappy t-shirts and coffee mugs with the church logo emblazoned on them. Yes! Absolutely, the church that exhibits these fruits can properly be said to be a successful church. The problem is, we are not supposed to be holding the church up to the yardstick of success in order to assess our faithfulness to the gospel. We are supposed to be holding the church to the yardstick of the cross of Christ. Bonhoeffer writes, “In the passion Jesus is a rejected Messiah. His rejection robs the passion of its halo of glory. It must be a passion without honor. Suffering and rejection sum up the whole cross of Jesus.” (emphasis mine)

I want to be as clear as possible: I do not intend to glorify suffering. I intend merely to refrain from glorifying success. I also do not intend for us to aim for failure. I am saying that assessing the church must transcend the categories of success and failure altogether. When we break out of the “success as our standard” mode of thinking, we will clean up the church’s image.

There are a multitude of critiques to this incomplete, shallow attempt at an answer, but I think I’ll address them in another post. In the meantime, David, I hope that I have provided something constructive for you to chew on. (That reminds me, I need to go take my brownies out of the oven.)

Mmm, Brownies,
Andy B.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Ecclesial Image Issues

The church has an image problem. How do you know what kind of tree is growing in your yard? By the fruit it bears. (Luke 6:43) Image is everything, and the church's fruit is pretty rotten lately.

In my opinion, there are basically three image issues keeping the church from reaching its fullest potential. These three things are
1) Clergy boundary transgressions,
2) Anti-intellectualism, and
3) Exclusivism.

Thousands upon thousands of people, in their life quest for meaning, do not think of the church as the place that meaning can be found. And I think the reason is that the image of the church is tarnished. Most people just don't like church, and frankly I can understand why.

In the public discourse about church, we are either talking about another clergy person involved with a sex or financial scandal, or about the attempt to negate the sceintific endeavor altogether, or about whom the church will choose to exclude from participation. Until more positive images of the church enter the sphere of conversation, there is no way that the body of Christ will fulfill its calling to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19) and realize the reign of God "on earth as it is in heaven." (Matthew 6:10)

Okay, Andy, but what about those "fundamentalist" (for the sake of this discussion meaning generally anti-science and morally exclusivistic) mega-churches that seem to be flourishing all over the place just now?

Good question, my friend!

First, not all mega-churches are so-called "fundamentalist." That is a stereotypical generalization only partly based upon fact.

Second, my guess is (no specific research has been done to back this up, mind you) that if you added up the number of fundamentalist-mega-church-members and added up the number of disillusioned-with-church-but-still-seeking-meaning-in-life-people in our society, the second group would be able to soundly defeat the first in a game of Red Rover. In short, there are many, many more meaning-seekers than mega-members. And, if I read the great commission correctly, it is with these meaning-seekers that disciples of Jesus Christ are invited to share God's grace and love.

So, this is my informed opinion based on a scriptural understanding of the church's mission, my personal experience in ministry, and a rational response to the image of the church as it is presented in our societal mass-media. The church's image is preventing it from reaching the potential to which God is calling it. The primary task of evangelism, seems to me, should therefore be changing that image.

Obey Your Thirst,
Andy B.