What is the Church?

A little over 10 years ago I had the opportunity to sit under Jurgen Moltmann for a few days of lecture. It was an amazing experience and one for which I am ever so thankful. So much of what he spoke about during those lectures shapes how I understand Jesus, the church, life, and ministry. Of course, continuing to read his works helps also. A few months ago I was reminded of the lectures and I tweeted about one of the statements that he made that really hit me.

Here’s the tweet:

It is such a small thing, asking ‘how do we do church?” versus asking “what is the church” but I think it has tremendous consequences. “How do we do church?” is all about the pragmatics of church and never really addresses or considers whether or not certain actions, programs, buildings, etc., etc. actually should be a part of the church.

“What is the church?” is about mission. “How do we do church? is about efficiency.

“What is the church?” leads us to ask if what we do actually fits into the core of who we are. Who Jesus has declared His church to be.

“How do we do church?” leads us to ask “does it work?” This isn’t a bad question, it just isn’t one of the most important questions.

After His testing in the wilderness, Jesus began His public ministry by reading from the prophet Isaiah. Luke records the following:

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
       because he has anointed me
       to proclaim good news to the poor.
       He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
      and recovery of sight for the blind,
      to set the oppressed free,
19  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-20)

When Jesus began His ministry He described His good news, His gospel, as being for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. He didn’t enter the world just the set the captives free but the freedom of captives is the natural occurrence of receiving His good news.

In my opinion the danger with “how do we do church?” being the primary question we ask is that it can lead to some incredibly unChristlike actions being allowed and encouraged in the name of “doing” church better. These actions may be organizationally efficent. They may bring people in. They simply don’t represent Jesus.

His ministry began with a proclamation that declared a change in the lives of those who were viewed as weak by those in power. I am fairly sure that His church should follow His example.

It is who we are.

Or at least who we are supposed to be.

The Letter to the Romans & Fawnda Witmer

I am presently reading and studying Paul’s Epistle to the Romans for the next Tapestry message series. After reading through the letter several times part of what has hit me is that while the letter has some of Paul’s most amazing teaching it is also basically just a missionary appeal for support. Paul writes them to say “hey God is doing this work and you should support it and me in doing the work.”

Since Tapestry does much of its mission support through the Cooperative Program with lots of other Southern Baptist churches. We don’t have a ton of missionaries coming through asking for support. Instead, the missionaries that come through are usually saying something similar to “this is the work you have already supported.”

We do, however, support quite a few local ministries and those that specifically go out from us. Which is why I want to mention Fawnda Witmer to you.

Fawnda is one of our own. She is going to be working with ReachAcross in helping Somalia refugees in Pittsburgh. You should read about the work on her blog. It is good, God-honoring work, that reaches out to the stranger in our land. That’s why Tapestry as an organization is supporting her and many of us who make up Tapestry are supporting her individually. I believe in what she is doing in the name of the Lord and I would encourage you to consider supporting the work of which she is a part.

I don’t meet many Somalia refugees in my daily life, but when I support Fawnda I get to be a part of Christ loving these refugees through her. When you are family what one does we all do.

Systemic Evil

I started writing this post about 5 years ago. I was in Chicago for some chaplain training, which was wonderful but one of the side issues of being at a conference for good or bad is that I am often separated from what is happening in the world. It can be a nice break from reality. It can also lead to some heartbreak when I suddenly learn of horrible events that have taken place. I came home to find out the there had been two police shootings of black men that made national news while I was hidden away in my training. I hurt for my friends. I have written before about how I hope to see the Imago Dei in people and believe that thus seeing people might help.

I wanted to start writing in response to some preachers and spiritual bloggers I saw that were responding that the racism that was probably behind such actions wasn’t a skin issue but a sin issue. They said that all that needed to be done was “introduce people to Jesus” and things would change. Their argument was that fighting for institutional or societal change was the wrong answer because ultimately this was a sin issue and sin issues require personal repentance. I struggled to find the words to blog so I never hit “publish” on the post and it sat as a draft.

Then it happened again.

Once again I read about horrific, hate-filled actions directed at people of color and saw many say and write “it is a sin issue”. Again from some I read the response that preaching the gospel was just about people “coming to Christ” rather than also the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the outcasts being brought back into society, and evil being confronted because of the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 7:22).

When Jesus walked into villages the salvation He brought wasn’t just repentance of personal sin but also the confrontation of evil in all its forms. Where Jesus walked the kingdom of God came and where the kingdom of God arrives captives are set free. Sometimes that captivity is to systemic evil and Christ brings freedom from it. Again I never could find the right words, so I worked on the draft of this post again and then left it as a draft.

Then it happened again.

So I started to write out my feelings on how this world, and our contribution to it, sadly, I worry, my contribution or lack thereof to it, has led to views that certain groups are somehow less than and not as worthy of the same rights and protection as other groups. But I couldn’t put my feelings down in a manner that I wanted to publish on my blog so I merely saved it as a draft knowing that the same incident would happen again.

And it happened again.

And it continues to happen because we have evil that is systemic. It has invaded our institutions. It has seeped into some of our societal values. It is so ingrained that it is easy for us in the majority to miss it, while those in the minority never seem to be able to escape it.

The Fall did not just taint personal humanity but also the humanity of our institutions. My Calvinist sisters and brothers in the faith hold that because of our sin, humanity is totally deprave, incapable of doing the work and will of God without redemption. While I don’t always agree with these fellow believers I do believe that the implications of this are accurate here. It means that not just we as individuals fall short of the glory of God but also our institutions. The organizations, cultures, and societies we are a part of are corrupted by sin.

Scripture says (Ephesians 6:12)

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Walter Wink wrote a great series of books discussing how the powers and principalities are often the organizations and institutions of our society. We are part of and surrounded by organizations and institutions that are just as tainted by the Fall as we are personally because they were created by and are made up of individuals who are fallen. Because of their fallen nature, our organizations and institutions also need to be redeemed and transformed. We need to look through Holy Spirit transformed eyes at these organizations and ask for Christ to show us how they are to be transformed and empower us to be a part of transforming them. Institutions, cultural norms, and societies don’t just change because individuals within them change (though that helps). These institutions themselves need to be renewed. Their values need to be questioned. They have to be redeemed or destroyed because of the evil inherent in them. But institutions, societies, and cultural norms aren’t redeemed in the same manner as individuals.

You don’t preach the gospel to institutions and societal evil. Institutions can’t “accept Jesus as their personal Savior.” Transformation through the power of the Kingdom of God has to happen with such institutional/systemic evil. Some would call this “social justice”, a phrase I am completely okay with because scripture defines God as a God of justice.

I feel like this is quite often forgotten by the evangelical community, at least the white evangelical community, because we don’t experience it and we don’t view it as a part of our reality. Our brothers and sisters who are People of Color experience this systemic evil far too often. As messed up as social media can be I am thankful for it at moments like this because it enables me to hear some of the pain, fear, and anger of my friends who go through this, and hopefully, it helps me to see what I have been swimming in without ever noticing.

The theologian James Cone responded in an interview regarding why he thought white theologians weren’t responding as much to racism. He stated:

If theologians perceived their own sons and daughters and parents as being discriminated against, they would not only write passionately against it but would make their rejection of injustice an essential part of their reflection on the Gospel.

I hope and pray that we see God defeating this evil as an essential part of our “reflection on the Gospel.” Jesus’s death and resurrection wasn’t just about defeating personal sin. It was to defeat all sin. Both personal sin and communal sin. Those of us who claim to be His disciples should look for the redemption of all that has fallen.

Racism is a societal evil and societal evils don’t change until they are confronted. The kingdom of God confronts such evil. William Wilberforce knew this and his faith led him to fight against the systemic evil of slavery. Robert Raikes saw the systemic abuse of children in the industrial revolution and started Sunday School as a part of his faith educating children to get them out of poverty. Martin Luther King saw the systemic abuse of his people and led a modern exodus through his faith.

I still don’t have the words I want to write about the evil that my friends who are people of color face. I also know that simply saving this as a draft until it happens again isn’t really an option. Oh it will happen again but I will never have the right words other than calling the stated or very often unstated treatment of people as less than because of the color of their skin as evil. When my friends’ blackness is viewed as a threat and the police are called merely for them being black that is evil. The fact that I can go running without fear while others can’t because of their gender or race is evil. The fact that if I were detained for forgery I would almost certainly receive much better treatment than George Floyd received is evil. The fact that I never have to worry that someone may call the police on me simply for being somewhere is evil.

I doubt I will ever be able to find the right words other than making sure my friends who are people of color know I love them and I want to support, advocate for you, and fight alongside you against this evil.

The kingdom of Christ fights against evil in all its forms. I hope as a follower of Jesus I do too.

Ahmaud Arbery

Ahmaud Arbery

I’ve been attempting to write down some thoughts concerning Ahmaud Arbery. Try as I might I can’t.

All I know is that when I go for a run I never need to worry about people driving up and holding me at gunpoint. Pam never needs to worry that I might not come home from a run because I have been shot. Both of our boys are around Ahmaud’s age and they both run. Neither Pam nor I need to warn them that there are people out there who will view them as a threat just for who they are.

The reason for this is the color of my skin. The color of my boys’ skin. I have no idea what I would tell my boys to keep them safe if they were young black men. I hurt for my friends of color. I want to support them. I hope they feel that I do.

I believe God will hold us accountable for supporting the systems that support such hatred. May He have mercy on us. May we begin to view people as He views people and live that view out.

Conspiracy Theories and Bearing False Witness

As is typical many on the internet and social media are spreading absurd conspiracy theories. This is nothing new. Unfortunately, many who claim Jesus as Lord are jumping on the bandwagon and posting this same stuff. Even more unfortunate is that this is nothing new either.

Ed Stetzer has a wonderful article on Christians spreading such false info “On Christians Spreading Corona Conspiracies: Gullibility is not a Spiritual Gift

I really appreciate Stetzer’s article and I like the point that he makes concerning “bearing false witness”. It is something I have thought about for quite sometime. Literally this post started as a draft in 2015.

If you knowingly share false information against a person (even a politician😋) that you disagree with then you are committing the sin of bearing false witness against them (if you unknowingly do this you still might be). You are speaking (knowingly or unknowingly) evil against another upon who God’s image sits. If your argument is “how do we know that this isn’t true” then you are still bearing false witness. Unless you positively know something is true then you aren’t supposed to speak it to others. To do otherwise is a sin against God because you have defamed another who bears the image of God. You have spoken lies against one who is a physical reminder of our Creator. This should shame us when we do it because I am certain that it hurts Jesus when we falsely defame the character of one of those whom He loves.

I bring this up because bearing false witness is a pretty big sin. It is one of the sins specifically mentioned in the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments).

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16)

Let’s call this what it is. When you spread this info not only are you spreading misinformation and thereby possibly hurting your brother and sister, but you have sinned. You need to repent. Do not give false testimony against your neighbor. God cares deeply about this.

You Bear the Imago Dei

Creation of Adam

I feel like I talk and write a fair amount about us seeing the Imago Dei (the image of God) in others and allowing that vision to shape how we respond to those around us. Right now though I want to remind each of us that the same Imago Dei is upon each of us.

God created you, He shaped you, and He placed that His image upon you. You are important, you are loved, you are not rejected,or left alone. You bear the Imago Dei and you are special as a result.

During our present isolation, some of the worst voices in our lives and heads can begin to shout the opposite very loudly.

“You aren’t doing as well as others!” “You are rejected!” “You aren’t loved!” “You’ve messed everything up!” “You are alone because you are unlovely!”

These voices are from the Accuser. They aren’t from the One Whose image you bear. Jesus said that whatever we do for “the least of these brothers and sisters” of His we did for Him because they bear His image.

We need to remember that sometimes we are “the least of these”

Practical Suggestions Dealing with Fear

This week I listened to the latest episode of the William & Mary Center for Corporate Education’s podcast “Leadership & Business”. It is titled “COVID-19 & Your Mental Health” and it is an interview with Dr. Kelly Crace, William & Mary’s Associate Vice President for Health and Wellness.

Dr. Crace makes seven suggestions for dealing with the anxiety that often happens during times like we are presently going through. I thought they were practical and helpful. You can listen to his full interview in the podcast but I will list his bullet points here, with a brief description beside each:

  • Focus on effective versus ineffective fear. There is a response to fear that motivates us to take action and one that paralyzes us. In faith, I would describe this as the difference between conviction and guilt. One pushes you to do better, while the other leads to inaction.
  • Become values focused amidst uncertainty. Knowing what is most important to you is a really good thing to know in fearful situations. Knowing your “one thing” gives you the strength to make good choices. That “one thing” is your North Star and you can navigate when you know where your “North Star” is.
  • Understand your personal experience and change and loss. Often we need to be able to talk about our fear and worries but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone needs to hear our fear and worries. Be observant of who talking about your fears with helps you and them and who it might affect negatively.
  • Realize that fear often makes possibility seem like probability. Fear can make the highly unlikely seem suddenly very likely. We need to plan for and react to the probable, rather than allowing any small possibility to control our everyday behavior. It is possible that I snake will make its way through a house’s plumbing and be in the toilet when you sit down, but it isn’t very likely. Realize that when we are scared we often think they near impossible is highly probable.
  • Stay informed, not stuck. Knowing the news can be a good thing. Staying informed is good. Yet spending all out time focused on the latest bit of news can send us down a spiral that is destructive. Follow the news but maybe skip the news shows and news entertainment.
  • Realize the difference between soothing & self-care. Self-care is helpful. It helps us to go forward and face difficult circumstances. Soothing eases pain but doesn’t necessarily help us to face difficult circumstances. Self-care is healthy. Soothing isn’t necessarily healthy. It can often be destructive.
  • Courage training – realize that struggling isn’t bad. Courage is doing the right thing even when you are struggling with fear. It implies struggle. Therefore, struggle isn’t necessarily a bad thing. So if you are struggling don’t think that it is necessarily a bad thing.

I thought these were good and helpful points so I wanted to share them.

How Do I Sabbath During the Pandemic?

This morning as I was prepping to walk Clive and stretch my legs I mentioned to Pam that I feel like I haven’t had a day off in a month. Then while I was walking Clive and listening to the latest episode of the great podcast The Mockingcast, low and behold they mentioned how they felt the same way.

It really isn’t that I feel overworked. I don’t. It is more that I feel like I haven’t been able to stop thinking about and doing small things related to my two jobs (both of which I love). There is always something else that can be done and not really a way to escape it. I can always send out another email, work on another Sunday video gathering, write another devotional or email, etc., etc. and for many of us the means to do these things are in the workspaces that we have created for ourselves. Our workspace is now in our homes and our “office hours” are pretty much 24/7.

This doesn’t mean that I am productive 24/7, actually quite the opposite. I think I am less productive because I feel that I am working all the time. Worse still I don’t know how to live out the Sabbath now.

I believe the Sabbath in scripture is a purposeful act of trust and rest. It is an act of trust because it is an acknowledgment that we are dependent upon God. To not work one day a week, and once a year seven years, in an agrarian society is an amazing act of trust. It is pure reliance. I feel pretty good about trusting the Lord right now. A pandemic has a tendency to remind one that you aren’t in control. The bigger issue for me right now is the idea of rest that is involved in the Sabbath.

The Sabbath says “it is enough”. We can rest because we don’t have to achieve more or do more. We stop and rest because with God there is enough and there is no need to achieve, acquire, or do more. But now there is always the possibility of doing more. There are only so many times that I can walk Clive around the block, take him for a ride, or go for a run to escape this. So I think “well I can work on that” and I give into it.

In normal times I would go fishing or go somewhere to make it where I couldn’t work, but that isn’t really an option during the “safer at home” situation we are presently in and the weather in Wisconsin is that terrible time when it isn’t cold enough for Winter sports and too cold for Spring outdoor activities.

I know there are bigger issues in the world, but right now I am trying to figure out how to practice Sabbath in the pandemic because I think it is very important.

Holy Week 2020 Sucked

I love Holy Week. I love preparing for it each year through Lent. I love setting up for the extra gatherings (after all I often say that setup is often my favorite part of Tapestry’s worship gatherings). I love coming together to read Mark 14-15 during our Tenebrae gathering and being with each other while walking out of that gathering in silence and darkness each year. I love seeing everybody on Resurrection Sunday, Easter, and seeing who decided to dress up or actually wear a fancy hat to church (we aren’t a dressy congregation but I could get into being a fancy hat church). I love eating Easter lunch with others who join us almost every year. I love the joy that is a part of each of these elements of Holy Week and I believe they are an appropriate reminder of the resurrection of the Son of God. I love Holy Week.

Which is why Holy Week 2020 stunk.

Jambalaya photos from Pam

Don’t get me wrong, I am so thankful for what we were still able to do during the COVID-19 pandemic. I am grateful for the technology that enabled us to communicate with each other during the week, to worship together through so many people sharing their talents and time to video various elements of our worship gathering. I so appreciate seeing many friends on Saturday when they came by the house to pick up jambalaya and communion bread, that the Holte’s graciously made. But that comes back to why Holy Week 2020 stunk.

Even when I was able to connect with people I couldn’t actually connect with them. I lament that we were merely “sort of” coming together. It was by video or at a distance of 6′ to 12′. It was with a protective “film” around our interaction and contact. We didn’t really come together during Holy Week, we just seemed to come close to one another. When we should have been experiencing God’s joy in the resurrection, the Godhead’s exuberant joy of no longer being separated, through us coming together in communion, instead, we held communion while we were each isolated in our homes. This isn’t the way it is supposed to be. It isn’t how we were meant to celebrate the death of death in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Easter is the reminder of that first great getting up morning and when we got up we weren’t together. We barely moved from our beds to our couches. Holy Week 2020 stunk.

I know for many people the videos and phone calls may always be the best, or at least most consistent, means they have for connecting with others and I am thankful for such advances that enable this contact. Certain challenges may keep them from being able to be with others. I love the fact that I can use Duo to video-call Adam in Minneapolis pretty much anytime I want, but I would never consider such calls as good as being with him. They aren’t. I am so grateful for Google Hangouts, Zoom, Discord, Duo, Webex and the other video/internet technologies for the distances and challenges that they allow us to sort of reach past, but they only “sort of” reach past those distances and challenges. Just “sort of”.

Scenes from Good Friday's Tenebrae.
Scenes from Good Friday’s Tenebrae.

To paraphrase Douglas Adam these technologies are “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike” actually being with each other. They are definitely better than nothing but realistically they lead to me thinking more and more “How long O Lord?” They don’t satiate my desire to connect with those I love (a desire that I believe honors God) but they lead me to longing for it all the more, which I believe is a good, but also painful, thing. It reminds me how much I love these people who help me to follow the Risen Savior. Seeing everyone on my television is sweet but it is a bittersweetness because it reminds me of what I was missing during Holy Week.

This isn’t the way it is supposed to be. It isn’t the way we will eternally celebrate communion with God, each other, and creation in the new world that has no sea. This past week my family and I remembered when God chose isolation to save us from the isolation we face in a world “bent” by sin, and we did so isolated from the rest of the world and the ones we love who are created in the image of the Triune God.

Holy Week 2020 sucked … still I am thankful for it … but it sucked compared to what it usually is.

A Quarantine Prayer

Here is the prayer that Elizabeth & Nathan share during today’s video gather. I thought it was pretty awesome and therefore wanted to share it again.

May we who know justice & compassion,
Repent for those who have let the viruses of greed make a difficult situation worse.

May we who are merely inconvenienced,
Remember those whose lives are at stake.

May we who have no risk factors,
Remember those most vulnerable.

May we who have the luxury of working from home,
Remember those who have to choose between preserving their health and making their rent.

May we who have the flexibility to care for our children when their schools close,
Remember those who have no options.

May we who have to cancel our trips,
Remember those who have no safe place to go.

May we who are losing our margin money In the tumult of the economic market,
Remember those who have no margin at all.

May we who settle in for a quarantine at home,
Remember those who have no home.

As fear grips our country help us choose love.

During this time when we cannon physically loop our arms around each other,
Help us find ways to be the loving embrace of God to our neighbors.