Thursday, July 24, 2008

An Update

It's been a while since I posted anything. I left London for LA on Monday, and have been adjusting to Pacific Time, hanging out with my family, and eating a lot since I got back. It's been good to be home. I was a little tired (in a good way), and I'm aware that I was craving a break. I'm taking three weeks of vacation and a week of study leave, where I'll read some books and map out sermon series through Christmas or even farther.

So...I'm trying to settle into a rhythm here, which will be easier once I stop waking up at 4:30am. For now I'm starting the day with a double-episode dose of Angel on TV. It amazes me how theologically connected that show was. I never watched it (or its predecessor, Buffy) when it was actually on, but in syndication it's been an interesting ride. I'm due for a long day in the library at Fuller to get my brain restarted for some good study,

I'll post some pictures and news over the next few weeks. If you're in the LA area, give me a call or email.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Wrapping Up a Series

If you've been checking this space lately you know that I've been preaching through the first half of the Book of Acts, with a focus on what it means to be a real-world church. We ended the series last Sunday, and so I thought I'd share a brief version of that final message.

The text was Acts 17:16-28.

16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, "What is this babbler trying to say?" Others remarked, "He seems to be advocating foreign gods." They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean." 21(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
22Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
24"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'

The point of this final message was that Paul models the mature life of faith in that he understood what he believed--cognitively and spiritually--and that he was also aware of the beliefs of the people he was trying to reach. But that wasn't the end. What we learn from Paul is that he took the knowledge of his own faith, his awareness of the beliefs of others, and worked hard to find points of connection between the two. That's why he was able to show his Athenian listeners where Christian teaching overlapped with what their own poets had said.

This is such an important message for us. It's too easy to look around and retreat into our own worlds, surrounded by people who believe like us, look like us, and spend like us. The world is a much bigger place than that, and the call to us is to engage it for the gospel of Jesus Christ. How do we do that? By following Paul's example of understanding our own faith first, then knowing something about Islam, or contemporary Atheism, or whatever else is the challenge to Christian belief in your neighborhood. Once we've done that it's our job, our responsibility, to find the bridges or points of connection between those different ways of living. Maybe the most important lesson we learn is that it's not about outcomes. Let me say that a different way.

Being a mature disciple of Jesus Christ is more about being faithful than it is about being successful.

There's no indication in the text that people came to faith after Paul's speech. Some people 'sneered', the text tells us. But just after our text ends, at the end of chapter 17, you'll notice that Paul gets invited to speak again. He got a second hearing. By being knowledgeable about his beliefs and those of the Athenians, he earned another chance to share the points of connection between the two. Paul was faithful to the process, and when people asked him to share again, he proved himself to be worthy of the invitation.

It's not hard to find points of connection between biblical faith and the culture around us. The world outside the church is growing in its passionate commitment to the poor, the sick, and to protecting God's creation. Funny, I know I've read something about all three of those in the Bible somewhere. When we can get away from our biases, when we can take our cultural blinders off and just relax a little, then we can see that the time is ripe for finding points of connection between the gospel of Jesus and the concerns of the world. That's good news.

But as we engage these tangible issues we have a responsibility to remember that the world has a need for a savior, too. It’s one thing to connect with the earthly needs we see around us, but when we do that at the expense of sharing the saving message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we stop being a church and we become just another socially-conscious club. That’s not what we’re about. That’s not why God gathered this diverse group of people into this unique place and gave us his name.

My prayer for all of us this place and in all gatherings of Christians, is that we’ll take seriously the call to be the hands and voice and heart of God wherever we go, wherever we live, and wherever we work.

The call on all of our lives is to know God’s story—to know our own stories—and to know the stories of the people around us. The rest is about sharing and helping and loving as Christ showed us in his own ministry.

Being real-world believers in a real-world church is about sharing our experiences of God in ways that are meaningful and authentic—complete with struggles and doubts…and victories and even miracles.

We accomplish that—we live it and make it real—when we commit ourselves to being (say it with me):

Engaged with the culture around us,
Grounded in the Scriptures God gave us,
And alive to the leading of the Holy Spirit in each one of our lives.

On our church website we say ‘welcome to the journey’, as a way of understanding the Christian life as a long obedience in the same direction, as one writer described it. That journey begins—or continues—right here in this place—right now, and every day going forward.

My prayer for all of us is that we’ll take this calling seriously as we live and worship together as a church in the real world. Amen.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Dip Into Politics

Everyone else is writing about politics, so it must be my turn (though sensible parents everywhere will bristle at that kind of logic).

I've been following this election more closely than others in recent years. I suppose partly it's because I'm living out of the US now, and so all things American are catching my eye. But from what I hear, interest in this campaign has been more intense even back home, and I think that's a great thing.

One obvious issue this time around has been the very touchy topic of race. Barack Obama has proved--even if his candidacy ended today--that a black man of substance can compete for the presidency and run a decent campaign. That ought not to be news, but there it is. Obama may not be everyone's cup of tea, but that's the point: he's in the mix, proposing policies (both wise and daft) and making the case that he'd be a good president.

Because I think neutrality may be one of the most boring traits imaginable, I'm going to say what I think about the presidential race from the point of view of an American news junkie living abroad. The 'living abroad' part is important because I'm seeing the election through the lens of a different form of democracy. Here in the UK, for example, they have a head of government (the prime minister) and a head of state (the Queen, for now). Having them separate means that the nuts and bolts of leadership and policymaking stay distinct from the person whose job it is to be the face of the nation. In the US those roles are blended into one. That may be a sign of wisdom or lunacy on the part of our Founding Fathers--frankly after only 232 years it may be too soon to tell. One thing it does mean, though, is that it is exceptionally difficult to find candidates who do both equally well.

In the current race I think John McCain is certainly the stronger and most experienced when it comes to policy and government leadership. His resume is simply longer and more varied--from military heroism to senate service to bucking his own political party--and that counts for something. Obama, on the other hand, strikes me as someone who can singlehandedly transform the image of America both at home and around the world. Just imagine a time when people can no longer talk with any credibility about the pervasive racism in America. An Obama victory means we can finally address the places where serious racism still exists, instead of painting an entire nation with the slander of that charge.

So in the end, for me anyway, the choice is between someone who leans toward being a stronger head of government, or someone who will be a stronger head of state. Living in the UK, where the image of the country I love has taken a beating lately, I'm opting for the head of state. But today I realized that there's more to my growing support of Barack Obama than just that simple choice.

What I'm writing today was prompted by the spat between Jesse Jackson and Obama last week. Actually, it wasn't a spat as much as an unveiling of the anger many old-line black leaders feel toward Obama and his candidacy. If you haven't heard, Jackson was being interviewed on TV and didn't realize that his mic was on when he attacked Obama for 'talking down to black people' when he criticized some for not being responsible fathers. Building in his anger (and brace yourself here), Jackson said of Obama: 'I want to cut his nuts out.'

Now I've written positive things about Rev. Jackson in these pages, especially after his graciousness when he preached at my church last fall, but his rage at Obama points to several things we often can't say out loud.

First, that Obama was right to criticize black fathers--or any fathers--who neglect their children and make hard lives even harder by their irresponsibility. Seriously, if we can't say that we can't say much that matters in addressing the serious problems in the world today. It's not judgmental or condescending if you're right.

Second, I'm so tired of important issues being reduced to color. Jackson built his career on the foundation laid by Martin Luther King, Jr., but he consistently misses the point of King's message. It seems so obvious to write--we all tell it to our kids (and ourselves, occasionally): It's what's on the inside that matters, not the outside. My parents taught me that the content of our character matters more than the color of our skin...I know someone else said that, too.

Finally, what this showed me about Obama--what really sways it for me--is that he seems to be thinking like a candidate for all people and not just one group of people. That's key, because an American president has to deal with a greater level of diversity among the citizens in his country than any other leader in the world. The UK is diverse, it's true, but they either ignore it or pander to it here...they certainly don't engage it and strive to pull it together. The best American presidents have represented all of the people while defending the idea that American democracy embodies.

So how do we account for the depth of anger and viciousness toward Obama by Jackson and others? It's important to realize that an Obama victory will put a segment of the civil rights lobby out of business. Not everything is about money and status and market share, but this one certainly is. A lot of people might lose their jobs or livelihoods or political power if a black man becomes the president of the United States of America. What makes me sad about it is that this should be a time of rejoicing, a time of celebrating that the brave, prophetic work of people like King and Marshall and, yes, even Jackson--that their hard work paid off in a big way. Doctors don't curse patients for getting better, and the civil rights leaders of the past generation shouldn't attack Barack Obama for being this close to what they fought for all along.

So...I suppose it's fair to say that I can't wait to see how this race turns out. Both parties are represented by good, competent people who love their country. My nod goes to the one who can do the heavy lifting of changing the way Americans see themselves, and the way the rest of the world sees America. I feel blessed to be able to see Dr. King's vision bear such amazing fruit. I hope King's followers can do the same.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Words, Words, Words

(There's a mid-year report below this post.)

Acts 17:10-15

I’m not sure that this is a prerequisite for being a minister, but in high school I did a little musical theater. The best part I ever had was playing Doolittle in My Fair Lady. The play was based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, about the idea that our class and place in society is determined by how we speak. You know this story: Henry Higgins takes on Eliza Doolittle who works in Covent Garden, and promises to help her speak well enough to get a job in a shop in Tottenham Court Road. One of Eliza’s songs toward the end of the play is called ‘Words, Words, Words’, where she loses her temper and tells everyone that actions are more important than talk.

We’ve been exploring the Book of Acts, especially what it means to be a Real-World Church. Our working definition over these past months has been that a real-world church is engaged with the culture, grounded in the Scriptures, and alive to the Holy Spirit.

That middle part—that’s pretty important. Part of our calling is to be grounded in the words of Scripture. We believe as Christian people that those words are more than, well, just words. We believe that the Bible is a unique book, a gift from God for our blessing and benefit. And we’re not alone in believing that.

10As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.
13When the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. 14The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. 15The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.

What is it that the Bereans do to earn Paul’s respect? They ‘examined the Scriptures each day to see if what Paul was teaching was true.’ Think about that: Paul would come in to preach, and the Bereans would be there, taking notes and flipping through their scrolls to see if Paul’s interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures was accurate.

The Bereans saw the Scriptures as the measuring stick of truth—the only authoritative way to distinguish truth from error. We talk about the canon of the Bible—canon is a great word that means measuring stick, like a ruler. Think of the main uses of a ruler: to measure things and to help keep things straight. That’s one of the ways we can understand how the Bible functions in our journey of faith: It helps us keep things straight, and also gives us a sense of how close we stay or how far we drift from the essence of the Christian message.

The issue we’re left with is this: How is the Bible the word of God? What does it mean when we talk about the authority of the Scriptures?

You’ve heard me talk about the Bishop of Durham quite a bit lately. N.T. Wright has written some of the most helpful books on the Christian faith that I’ve read in a long time. In his book on the Bible, The Last Word, he said this: “The phrase “authority of scripture” can make Christian sense only if it is a shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, communicated somehow through scripture.’”

That’s really important, because the church hasn’t always communicated that idea very clearly. The Bible is important, and it plays a unique role in the life of faith, but it’s not God—it only points to God—teaches about God—introduces us to the mind and heart of God.

This past week we commemorated the creation of the internationally understood code for needing to be rescued: S-O-S. It was officially adopted by the world community on July 1st, 1908, and proved its worth after the Titanic hit the iceberg in 1915. You know what SOS sounds like, right? It’s three dots followed by three long dashes and three more dots. I hear it now as one of the ring tones available on mobile phones.

There had been other distress signals before SOS—most important was the code CQD, but the problem was that it kept getting confused with other words. Besides, I don’t think ABBA or The Police or even Rhianna would have written songs about sending out a CQD—it just doesn’t sound right. SOS was chosen because it was easy to distinguish from other codes, and because it was completely meaningless in any known language.

When you think about distress signals, the response is more important than the original call for help. Let me say that another way: Sending out a call to be rescued doesn’t amount to much if no one responds. The words of God as we find them in the Bible are God’s response to our distress signal—to the questions that drive us in the daytime and keep us awake at night:

Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I headed?

To be grounded in the Scriptures is to be grounded in God’s response to our deepest longings—to our SOS. To be rooted in his communication to us through the words of the Bible.

What does all of this mean for us? How are we called to live?

The example of the Bereans is a call to read and know the Scriptures. There’s nothing tricky or easy about this one. We’re called to be disciples who know what we’re talking about—people who put at least as much time and effort into reading the Bible as we would into reading the instructions for a mobile phone or a home appliance, or maybe the prospectus for an investment we want to make, or even an insurance policy. It just might be the case that the best insurance we could hope for comes from investing a little time into reading the Scriptures and knowing them for ourselves.

But it’s not just about knowing a list of verses and facts. We ground ourselves in the words of Scriptures in order to find a meaningful glimpse of God’s heart and mind. Like reading the letters or journal of some historical figure and learning their thoughts and hopes and longings, we read the Scriptures to experience the same discoveries about God. We grow closer to God—and closer to the people he made us to be—when we spend time reflecting on who he is and what he wants. We don’t just find a list of facts in the Bible, we find the person and the personality of God.

Finally, after reading the Bible and experiencing God in its message, we begin to conform our lives to what we find in the Scriptures, and not the other way around. It’s so important to remember that the Bible isn’t just a record of God’s words and actions or even his purpose, it’s the process of taking an active part in that purpose—being a part of the coming of God’s Kingdom in the here and now.

Mostly, for our purposes at this church, learning to live our lives as extensions of the message of the gospel is one of the core pieces of being real-world Christians—of being a real-world church. Paul said that the Bereans were of much nobler character because of their willingness to learn and to be shaped by Scriptures. Would Paul, or anyone else, be able to say the same about us?

As we come to the Table this morning we come as a community of faith, a gathering of broken people whose lives have been redeemed by Jesus Christ. We come as a church that is engaged in the culture, grounded in the Scriptures, and alive to the Holy Spirit.