Thursday, October 06, 2011

Rationalization vs. Confession: Post-Bible Study Musings

“So wait, is this your belief or are you trying to say that this is what the book of James is saying?” he asked me.

And inside I smiled a little bit.

I smiled a little bit because when somebody asks me this during a Bible study that I am leading, I know it’s going well. I have said something that challenges assumptions and forces people to think critically and deeply about how scripture should inform our lives.

Of course, that’s easier to do with some scriptures than others, and it just so happens that the book of James is full of ideas that ought to challenge us. You don’t have to dig too deeply to discover a thought that shakes your foundation.

I believe that the predominant theme of the letter is the friend of God/friend of the world dichotomy. “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (4:4) This “no-one-can-serve-two-masters” idea is fairly common throughout scripture, but nowhere more clearly articulated than in James, and as such it provokes some pretty deep thought.

Last night at Bible study, many of us sensed the challenge, myself included. We were confronted with the notion that we do not truly live our lives the way God wants us to. And then we realized that there are two options when confronted with this fact.

Option A, we can rationalize our lives. Or 2, we can confess our sin.

Of course our first inclination is to rationalize. We will do all sorts of interpretive gyrations with scripture in order to get its message to fit into our current lifestyle. “It’s for the safety and security and health and well-being of my family,” we frequently say.

Even that?

Abraham is James’ example (2:21). Abraham, whose friendship of God was manifest in his willingness to sacrifice his own son. Even that.

“I’ll follow you, Jesus, but my dad just died and his funeral is today.”

“I’ll follow you, Jesus, but I’d like to say goodbye to my family first.”

Luke chapter 9. Even that.

The enormous amount of wealth that families amass (my own included) in the form of savings accounts and college funds and insurance policies and investments … it’s all for the welfare of my family, right? What’s so wrong with that?

“I’ll follow you, Jesus, let me just check my 401k first.”

“You do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (4:14)

Rather than reshape God’s word so that it fits into our lives, the second option is to confess. We don’t like this option, since it requires humility, and we do not do humility very well. Option A doesn’t require humility, or submission, or transformation, so we like it! We can go on living exactly how we want to live, and feel good about it.

Or maybe we could confess.

Maybe we could truly acknowledge that we know very well what Jesus expects of us, and the way we live is nowhere close to it; it’s just too hard.

Maybe we could actually confess our need to discover who Jesus really is and pattern our lives after his and stop bickering about the minutiae of the inane.

Maybe we could confess that we are stuck in a society that pulls on us from a thousand directions at once, and we are helpless to pull ourselves out of it completely.

And maybe in confessing we could receive grace. And maybe in receiving grace we could experience transformation.

And maybe in the transformation we will discover that God will not actually ask us to sacrifice our own son, and provide for our needs anyway. Yes, maybe we will realize that if we are actually seeking first the kingdom of God, a few other things might be added unto us as well.

Maybe we will figure out that confessing opens up space in our lives for grace, and when grace begins to fill your life it is oh, so, so, very, very good! As in, unimaginably good - better than in your wildest dreams!

The book of James expresses the moral imperatives of Christianity in provocative ways. They are written “so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:4) and in order that we might embody “the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (1:21).

In other words, “faith is brought to completion by works” (2:22); we live what we believe. And sometimes we don’t. And that’s okay - that’s why there’s grace. But rather than pretend our lives are just fine, maybe we need to confess that they really aren’t, and see what happens from there.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

"Markers of Religious Connection?"

My mind is circling around a significant realization, and yet I can’t quite seem to grasp it. It’s like I catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye, but if I turn to look at it full-on, it evaporates.

There are a lot of concurrent streams that seem to be converging, and they have to do with ministry, discipleship, church, and how to discern/assess/evaluate them.

Tis the season, I suppose - end of the year reports and evaluations and budgets and goal-setting and all that jazz. And I just become more and more convinced that numbers are not telling the story that we need to be telling.

Get your mind around this. The congregation I serve is going to turn in about the same number of professions of faith this year as last year - 26 last year and 25 this year so far. So, more than 50 people over two years, which is groovy. The total of new members, counting transfers, is going to be up close to 150 for these two years, 2010 and 2011.

But we will be lucky if our average worship attendance increases; right now it is less than last year so if we don’t see a bump here in the last quarter, we’ll turn in a lower figure than last year, which was itself lower than the year before.

150 new members, including 50 professions of faith, and a declining worship attendance? How do we read that? Is it good or bad?

Then there’s this (click here) the Barna research that reveals the propensity of Americans to create our own religion based on what works for us. Two trends that the research reveals …

• More people claim they have accepted Jesus as their savior and expect to
go to heaven.
• And more say they haven’t been to church in the past six months except
for special occasions such as weddings or funerals.

Allow me to holler an “Amen!” to that.

“The important markers of religious connection are fracturing,” says this article, paraphrasing Barna. That says it better than anything I’ve read or heard. The things that we once used to gauge a congregation’s effectiveness or an individual’s spiritual health are no longer applicable.

'The important markers of religious connection are fracturing.'

I have noticed a growing tendency to think of church as something you fit into your otherwise busy schedule. As Barna says it, “We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs - our clothing, our food, our education.” And that now seems to include our discipleship, too.

Worship attendance? A fractured marker.

Weekly faith formation group? Fractured marker.

Tithing? Fractured marker.

Truly selfless service? Fractured marker.

The thing is, people who DO all of those “markers of connection” can feel a real impact in their lives. Those who worship every week, participate in a small group, give generously, serve selflessly, etc. - it makes an incredible difference in their lives. Their lives are balanced, they know deep joy, there is a firm foundation for times of trouble, and they become who God wants them to be.

And so how can I, a pastor whose driving motivator is to help people become disciples of Jesus who are changing the world for God’s sake, convey this message? How do I say to someone who thinks life is “just fine” that there is more?

It is hard to do because, on one level, their life really is just fine - great job, nice house, a couple of cars, fancy home entertainment center, and so on. Religion becomes something to fit into all of that, not something that calls one to be radically transformed.

The important markers of religious connection are fracturing. And yet we still believe they are important, don’t we? And so we still utilize them to assess congregational effectiveness, even when it may not be applicable to do so because it really doesn’t tell a true story.

- Are there other markers that we could be using? What would they be?

- Can we rethink the traditional markers somehow? In the same way that individuals design their own faith, should the churches design our own assessment tools?

- How do we talk about transformation when everything is “just fine?”

This issue is on a lot of minds lately, and I hope this moment doesn’t go by un-seized. Bishop Pennel has a column on the UMPortal today that gives his thoughts, and I have read several others in recent days. All a part of the converging streams of thought swirling in my brain these days.

Clearly the question of congregational health/effectiveness/success is not going anywhere any time soon.