Friday, August 31, 2007

Happiness is a Serious Problem

I owe radio host and author, Dennis Prager, the credit for the title and the following equation: U=I-R (unhappiness = image minus reality).

Here's what it means. There are a lot of unhappy people in the world. And, oddly enough, money seems to have no bearing on a person's happiness. Many lottery winners are either broke or unhappy or both. I have seen profound unhappiness on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and profound happiness in the rural villages of Zambia. Basically, human nature is the biggest obstacle to happiness. Human nature is insatiable. Something in us longs for more. What we have is never enough. It's part of the human condition that the Bible speaks of. Ecclesiastes says that God has "set eternity in the hearts of men." Restlessness is part of the human spirit. We create idealistic images of what we would like our lives to look like. We create dreams in our minds where disease, death, and poverty do not exist. But rarely do the images/dreams match reality. Unhappiness is how we deal with the distance between our images and reality.

So, let's start simple. A young woman may have an image in her mind of the perfect husband with the perfect job with perfect kids - you know, the white picket fence kinda life. Then she marries, and after a few years she finds out that her husband is basically a jerk, her kids are brats, and they still live in some cheap apartment because of credit problems. Her unhappiness is the distance between the image in her mind, and the reality of her life. You can apply this equation to every aspect of life. A parent may have an image of their son as a doctor, but the son turns out to be a car salesman. The gap manifests itself in the parent's unhappiness. Or, you may have an image of yourself as a college professor, but your undergraduate GPA is a 3.0, so Ph.D programs turn you down. The gap becomes your source of unhappiness. Take people's unhappiness with God and religion - the same principle applies. One's image of what God is or what the church ought to be doesn't match reality, and people find themselves angry at God or angry at the church. Let's say you have an image in your mind of the ideal, loving relationship, but the reality is less than the image. The gap is unhappiness in your life. The images we create in our minds of what relationships ought to be hardly ever match reality. I have observed this to be the greatest source of unhappiness for people. NO ONE, absolutely NO ONE gets married expecting a divorce.

I could go on and on and on, but I want my readers to share. So let me be autobiographical. As a child I created an image in my mind of living in America as an American. But I was born in South Africa. The gap was highlighted by me putting up American flags everywhere and using American spelling. The day I became a U.S. citizen, the gap closed. Now I'm happy with my identity. When I was 18 I had an image that I would be a professional cyclist - then I moved to Texas, went to preaching school, was introduced to fried chicken and cheesecake, and all of a sudden, there was a huge gap between my image and the reality of my life. That's why I cried when I watched the opening of the 1996 Olympic Games. That image no longer exists in my mind, so I'm not unhappy being out of shape - yeah, yeah, I know I could lose some weight! Speaking of appearances - you see a magazine ad, or you watch Pretty Woman, and you create an image in your mind of looking like Julia Roberts. A lot of girls suffer eating disorders and depression because the gap between the image and the reality is a source of great unhappiness. This principle applies across the board - relationships, looks, health, career, home, finances, religion - you name it, this principle applies. Unhappiness = the gap between Image and Reality.

So, how do you become happy? It seems like there are 2 options. You could create a new, lesser image, or you could work hard to make reality closer to the image in your mind. Either way, for most people, happiness is a serious problem! Your thoughts?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Does Religion Make People Better or Worse?

Dennis Prager tells about a young man who attended a Jewish institute he used to direct. When this young man first arrived at the institute, he was a kind and nonjudgmental person - and completely secular. After his month-long immersion in studying the Torah, he decided to become a fully practicing Orthodox Jew. When Dennis met him a year later he found that he was actually less kind and was aggressively judgmental of his fellow Jews, including those who had brought him to Judaism in the first place. In one year he had become, in his own eyes, holier than the teachers who brought him to religion in the first place. The religion's emphasis on legal observance enabled him to count the number of laws his fellow Jews did not observe and judge them accordingly.

Within Christianity, faith in Christ can lead one to live a life of extraordinary loving-kindness and self-sacrifice, but it can also, and has, led Christians to place so much emphasis on proper faith as to neglect equal emphasis on proper behavior. When you evaluate your own beliefs and practices (and you must do this before evaluating the beliefs of others), ask yourself, “Has this belief or doctrine made me a better person?” or, “Has this belief or doctrine made me less kind, less compassionate, less rational, and more judgmental?” If your answer is the latter, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate that doctrine. I hate to beat this issue to death, but if your worship theology causes you to believe that someone will go to hell for worshipping God with a musical instrument, you have to re-evaluate that doctrine because it is not rational and it causes you to treat other believers in a disrespectful way. If you find yourself acting more like a Pharisee than like Jesus, then it's really time to rethink how you read and apply scripture, or how you engage sin and sinners in our culture. This is why Islamic terrorism is such a pernicious evil - it is killing innocents in the name of God. Their religion clearly has made them worse people! Faith has got to make us better people, not worse people – good and evil being defined by how we treat others.

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Friday, August 24, 2007

Pattern or Passion (Part 2)

In 1988 Ruel Lemmons wrote this editorial. From the day I read it, it has had a profound influence on me. So, here it is for your weekend's enjoyment: Pattern or Passion?

"In Egypt, near the banks of the Nile, I one time saw an ox hitched to a water-pumping device. The ox has a leader pole attached to the water mill. When the ox pulled the beam to which it was hitched, it in turn advanced the lead pole, and the pole pulled the ox forward. The ox wore a blindfold, and in total darkness he plodded, onward, day after endless day, not knowing where he was going. He had done it so long that the circle in which he plodded had become a rut so deep the ground level was well up the body of the ox. The ox knew the pattern alright. It had traveled on for years in the same circle and had never gotten fifty feet from where it started as a young ox years ago. Now it was a gaunt and grizzly old ox whose days were surely numbered. It knew the pattern alright, but it had no passion. And so it plodded on--aimlessly--all its life.

We have become a church noted for its pattern rather than its passion. We have turned inward and we consume our energies in going around in a circle. I have seen churches just like that ox. They meet every Sunday. They read the same book regularly. They are sticklers for the pattern. They boast of their soundness and their loyalty, but they are going nowhere. The rut they are in is belly deep, and they have blinders over their eyes--put there by cruel masters, usually elders and preachers who boast of their authority--and like dumb driven cattle, they pull the load which also becomes their lead pole--but they are simply wearing their rut deeper. One thing I decided early in life as a preacher: nobody was going to own me--no eldership, no membership, no boss, no brotherhood clique--no nothing. I developed several different skills for making a living just so that no one could cut off my thinking processes by intimidation. I do not have to parrot a party line. I count my freedom in Christ a precious thing and will be free to do so or die. I will not live in slavery. Any time I find myself in a situation where I feel my ability to act in good conscience is being limited, I will change it and do something else. I will wear no blinders. I will tread no mill. I still feel that way about it. I may be mistaken about what the Bible says, but I believe strongly what I think it says. And no man will bind upon me an understanding of the Scriptures further than I myself perceive them to teach. And I am bound to preach it that way. I have too little patience, I suppose, with those who have to be told how to do the details of everything and exactly what they can and cannot believe. I wouldn't hire a man who couldn't figure out how to do what he was told to do on his own.

Following the Scripture is not a circular walk. The Scriptures point a straight line to glory. We don't simply pull the mill in order to be led by the pole. We don't wear blinders lest we launch out in a new direction. We must not lose our passion in our obsession with the pattern. It is easy for us to become lulled into semi-unconsciousness by a false sense of well-being. We can plod in our circle, never knowing how wretched, poor, naked, and blind we really are; or we can stay awake and alive and aggressive and passionate and make progress not in a circle.

We will never produce the dynamic growth we need as we push into the twenty-first century unless we get out of our rut, cast off our blinders, and quit being led by the nose by a few who think they have all the answers. We need to double the number of congregations we now have. We will never do that going around in a circle. We need to see the lost with a world vision. We will never do that with blinders on. We need to blaze new pathways. We will never do that hitched to a pole. Planting new churches and saving souls is exciting work. World evangelism is thing of passion. Christians today are not being evangelistically oriented. It is basic to church growth that every individual be evangelistically trained and evangelism inspired. Obsession with the pattern to the neglect of the passion is destroying us. As long as Christians are vital and active, they are deterred from falling away. All the knowledge in the world will not substitute for passion. It takes a faith strong enough to make us alter our lives, get out of our ruts, and seek new pastures. By such a faith, Abraham left Ur, not knowing where he was going. It was passion, rather than pattern, that drove him. We desperately need to find some new ways of doing the things the Bible teaches us to do."

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pattern or Passion?

I grew up in Churches of Christ. I have followed the restoration principle all my life. I have learned the “pattern” from childhood. But I can’t defend it! It is a deeply flawed way to read the Bible, it is inherently inconsistent, and inevitably divisive. In February I had one of those hinge moments – a small thing that changed how I think. I was teaching a class, and asked the question, “How does this ancient teaching manifest itself in the modern church?” I was hit with a barrage of objections to the phrase “modern church.” It’s not one of our authorized code words. They wanted me to say “New Testament church.” My answer was, “look around the room. There’s the modern church.” But we were talking on two different levels. The “NT church” is code for a church that has restored the pattern of worship, doctrine, and life precisely as outlined in the NT. I no longer believe we can do that. I still believe in faithfulness to scripture of course, but the history of restoration movements is so full of disunity, sectarianism, anger, and contention that I don’t want to perpetuate it. Anyway, common sense dictates that restoring the NT church in the 21st century is impossible! Which church should we restore? Jerusalem? Antioch? Corinth? Rome? Those are all different expression of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. What about churches not listed in the NT record?

Thanks to Bobby Valentine for this research, here is a brief overview of the quest for the pattern among various Christians and what that pattern looked like to them. I think it is instructive to ask the specific questions of how and why the pattern they perceived has been different from what we have claimed the pattern to be.

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) was the great Swiss Reformer who sought to return to the purity of apostolic Christianity. Beginning in 1519 he announced that he would only be preaching from the New Testament. Zwingli soon became focused on the notion of "the law of Christ." With this in his mind he rejected vestments, images, mass, and introduced the primary motif for the Lords Supper that Churches of Christ still cling to – a strict memorial only. Zwingli introduced a hermeneutical principle that has had far reaching effects: the Regulative Principle. As used by Zwingli this principle simply states that whatever scripture does not explicitly command is forbidden. To illustrate how serious Zwingli was about this we need only look at his views on singing in worship. According to Zwingli the divine pattern only explicitly directs three acts of worship: preaching, prayer and the Lords Supper. But what of singing? Audible singing was to be rejected in worship on the same principle instrumental music was rejected - there was no authority in the divine pattern for it. After all, Zwingli argued, Paul commanded us to admonish one another "in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" but he specified that the only music was to be "in your hearts." Zwingli felt that the pattern forbade public singing.

The New England Puritans were on a restorationist crusade. John Cotton (1584-1652) a leading figure in colonial American history was an ardent pattern seeker. His quest for the divine pattern was as strict as any in history. He wrote: “No new traditions must be thrust upon us but that which we have had from the beginning. True Antiquity is that which fetches its original from the beginning. If they have no higher rise than the patristic Fathers, it is too young a device. Live ancient lives; your obedience must be swayed by an old rule, walk in the old ways." (John Cotton, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated Into English Meter, 1640) Cotton was committed to finding and reproducing the biblical pattern. So great was his quest for doing it exactly as they did it in "true Antiquity" that he agonized over whether Christians were to partake of the Lord’s Supper in the morning or in the evening. In 1611 he published, "A Short Discourse of Mr. John Cotton touchinge the time when the Lordes day beginneth whether at the Eveninge or in the Morninge." In this volume Cotton argued that evening is the truest observance for the Lord’s Day and the Supper because it had been set forth in "the first institution of time" and thus was the “old and good way.” Moving to a morning observance was to innovate and to depart from the "practice and judgment of the primitive Church." Cotton finally states, "I see no footstep of Christ or his disciples . . . that go before us in this path." That is the path of morning to morning rather than evening to evening. It is clear that Cotton was a devoted restorationist in an honest quest for the pattern of the church. In Cotton's pattern a group of men would test each other for doctrinal soundness and relate their conversions before starting a local church. Then they entered a covenant pledging to uphold the laws of God and the purity of the congregation. The gathered church selected a teaching pastor; ruling elders and deacons. Future members would be examined by the ruling elders then asked to profess their faith publicly and sign the church covenant. One more example of Cotton’s understanding of the pattern is his understanding of singing. Cotton, like Zwingli, rejected instrumental music though not congregational singing as did Zwingli. Instead, Cotton rejected any song written in post-biblical times. The only "authorized" singing in worship was that of the Psalms. Man had no authority to lift up his own tainted and unholy words to the throne, for Paul had commanded that we sing Psalms. To go beyond what was written was dangerous, it was to depart from the pattern. John Cotton was convinced that the churches formed under his leadership in New England were in fact identical to the New Testament churches. He writes that the churches are exactly as they would be if "Jesus were here himselfe in person."

The Baptists grew out of the Puritan movement because they felt the Puritans did not go far enough in the quest for God’s pattern. The New England Puritans still accepted infant baptism but the Baptists rejected this as against the pattern. Two Baptist theologians wrote treatises to demonstrate the true marks of the true church: Morgan Edwards (1722-1795) and James R. Graves (1822-1893). Edwards book was entitled "Customs of Primitive Churches" outlining what he viewed as the unassailable Baptist position as being the true New Testament church. Graves engaged in mortal combat with Alexander Campbell, whom he believed to be a Bible denying liberal! For Graves the true pattern was found in the Jerusalem church. He wrote, "The Church which Christ himself organized in Jerusalem is an authoritative model to be patterned after until the end of time. The Catholic and various Protestant sects were originated and set up many ages after the ascension of Christ. They are therefore not divine but human institutions." Graves sought to confront all, "human traditions, and mutilated and profane ordinances, and those who impiously presume to enact laws in place of Christ, and to change the order of his church." Graves claimed that his brotherhood was the one true church and that they alone were Christians. Graves stressed that each element of the pattern was of equal importance. Thus if a congregation fell short in only one area it was no longer a true church.

In our own movement (Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ) Barton Stone was a primitivist, but Alexander Campbell had a different reason for restoring the pattern of the NT church. Campbell was an ardent postmillennialist (the view that human progress would usher in a utopian era that would lead to Christ’s return). That is almost a uniquely American view. Campbell believed that the church had to be restored before Christ could return. This extreme, motivated, argumentative patternism got out of hand a generation or two later. No one embodies this better than Daniel Sommer (1850-1940). He is responsible for the rabid, ultra-conservative, combative tenor and reputation of Churches of Christ since the split was recognized in 1906 – actually this man’s movement led to the split. In 1889 he held a meeting in Sand Creek Illinois, and issued a document called the Address and Declaration. It stated: “It is therefore, with the view, if possible, of counteracting the usages and practices that have crept into the church, that this effort on the part of the congregations hereafter named is made. And now, in closing up this address and declaration, we state that we are impelled from a sense of duty to say, that all such as are guilty of teaching, or allowing and practicing the many innovations to which we have referred, that after being admonished and having had sufficient time for reflection, if they do not turn away from such abominations, that we can not and will not regard them as brethren.”

How do we account for these radical differences? How do we evaluate one reconstructed pattern against the other? Should we be dogmatic like Cotton and Graves? Or should we dismiss these and others on the quest as dishonest? Should we claim they did not believe in Bible authority? What makes our pattern right and theirs wrong? What makes some things a mark of the church and other things not? Perhaps the pattern does not concern itself over the organization of the church but rather following the way of the cross in discipleship. Perhaps we should learn that often the pattern we recognize is more a mirror of the person reconstructing it than scripture itself. One lesson is that the quest for the pattern should teach us the virtue of humility. The quest for the pattern has resulted in harsh judgementalism rather than the love of Christ, which is the one pattern we must follow.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Who are the "Weaker Brothers"

I have always wondered about Paul’s references to “weaker brothers” in the New Testament, and how those arguments apply to the modern church. After a lot of reading, studying, and exegesis of 1st Corinthians and Romans 14 I am convinced that Paul is not talking about people who’d be upset that their narrow understandings were being violated. He isn’t speaking about them being offended. He’s addressing a very real possibility of falling away. They had come out of paganism. They remembered those pagan temples; they could recall the thrill of the meals; they still had memories of the way moral restraint was lifted in that environment. One smell of that meat might lead them down a road to their old lives. That's why he talks about their faith being "destroyed." The “strong Christians” might know that it isn’t a package deal; but these weaker brothers and sisters might be caught up into idolatry. It’s important to know what he’s saying. And it’s equally important to know what he’s not saying. These “weaker brother” passages have been used too many times to endorse the position of the person with the most narrow way. It has nothing to do with that.

Here is a very insightful comment from my favorite New Testament Scholar, N.T. Wright:
“Sometimes people from a very narrow background, full of rules and restrictions which have nothing to do with the gospel itself and everything to do with a particular social subculture, try to insist that all other good Christians should join them in their tight little world. But in a case like that the rule-bound Christians are in no danger of having their consciences damaged. They are not being ‘led astray.’ They are quite sure of their own correctness. Paul is dealing with a very different case.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Leadership (Part 3)

That last post generated a lot of discussion - some of it on the topic, and some way off topic. After venting and listening to some responses, I want to give an example of rising above this pettiness that can consume us if we're not careful. At a time when churches are cracking up, leaders are not respected, and feelings are seared, we need good examples. Here is my hero when I think of church leadership. T. B. Larimore.

Larimore was a wildly popular Church of Christ preacher in Sherman, Texas in the 1890's. This was a time in our history more turbulent than even today. The restoration movement was being ripped in half. Lines were drawn, sides were taken, and the fight was on!!! What were the issues? Instrumental music vs acappella singing, missionary societies vs local congregational support for foreign missionaries, special fundraising vs Sunday collection as the only way to raise money, acceptance of previous baptism vs rebaptism in a Church of Christ, located preachers vs "mutual edification." There were other issues, and, remember, the wounds from the Civil War were still festering. (Our revisionist tendencies say that it was ALL about instrumental music.)

In 1897 two ministers who had been former students of Larimore at Mars Hill College wrote him a letter urging him to speak out on these issues. They said, "It is not best, in our humble judgment, to be silent when we see our fellow men, and especially our own family, drifting apart. Please, therefore, answer the following questions according to your judgment . . . (instrumental music, organized mission work, conventions and lectureships, paid located preachers) . . . Thousands of your brothers and sisters believe it is your duty to speak out on these questions, and strive to unite the people of God. And surely when duty calls you will respond." To this challenge, Larimore replied, "Never, publicly or privately, have I expressed opinion or preference relative to any of these matters over which brethren are wrangling and disputing and dividing the church of Christ - never! I am sorry to disappoint any of my friends, but it is clearly my duty to leave the discussion to wiser, better, abler men, and just simply preach the Word, avoiding all questions that gender strife among the children of God. I shall simply do as I have always done - love the brethren. They may refuse to recognize or fellowship or affiliate with me; but I will NEVER refuse to recognize or fellowship or affiliate with them - NEVER."

Larimore never recognized the split that even the U.S. Census recognized in 1906. He preached in both instrumental Christian Churches and acappella Churches of Christ, and he felt comfortable in both. By the time he died in 1928, Larimore had planted more churches, preached more sermons, and baptized more people (over 10 000) than any other living preacher at the time! What an example. That's who I want to be.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Pain of Leadership (Part 2)

The last post on leadership generated some good discussion so let me take it a step further with a concrete example.

*** Disclaimer *** I love the people at the Baker Heights Church of Christ dearly, but sometimes I will talk about things that happened there that will, necessarily, make certain people look bad. Sorry. This cannot be helped.

Last year I taught a 6-month series of lessons on Church History. People loved it! I was presenting material most had never heard before. And I tried to make it interesting - exciting stories, great PowerPoint presentations, relevant application. One night I showed a video called "Christianity: The First Thousand Years." It was about how the church filled the power void created when Rome fell, and how that changed both western civilization and the church. The video was narrated, with soft, but typically dramatic documentary music in the background. After class, while people were milling around the auditorium, an older man, who wasn't even in my class, came up to an elder I was talking to. I could tell he was mad. Now keep in mind that this man was usually gentle and kind and soft-spoken. Holly loves his wife too - she's a sweet grandma type. This man ignored me, and said to the elder, "I hear there was a video in here with instrumental music! My brother couldn't take it - he walked out! What are you gonna do?" I'm standing right there, remember. So I said to him, "Let's not talk about this here." We went outside, and I listened to his concerns. As patiently as possible I explained to him that while I also believe worship ought to be non-instrumental, showing a documentary with background music in a Wednesday night class was different. He said, "You opened with a prayer, didn't you? So it's worship." I knew this man's intellect wasn't firing on all cylinders when he said, "You could have still showed the video, you could have just muted the sound." I ended the conversation by saying, "I really understand what you're saying, and I agree. We just apply it a little differently." His response: "My brother has just come out of a Christian Church. I don't want him to lose his soul, and if you feel that way, I don't want you preaching here!"

Later that night I vented to Holly, and let it go. What did he do? He went to some more elders and complained about "the instrument" working it's way into our church. I'm sure he also mentioned something about slippery slopes leading to hell, though I can't confirm that. So, how did the leadership respond? They came up with a new policy - under no circumstances could ANY form of instrumental music be played in any format in the auditorium of the church. Now, on what basis did they make that decision? Theological conviction? Solid principle? The overall good of the church? The strength of our witness in the community? NO. It was a decision based on calming the irrational fears of a small anxiety riddled minority!

So, come next quarter, an elder wanted to show a video in his class that had soft background music. What did he do? He had the class come back on a Sunday night, after everyone else had left, and he showed the documentary. It felt like we were doing something wrong, under the cover of darkness. It was like we were revolutionaries plotting the overthrow of the traditionalists! No, not really! But here's the point. An ELDER was forced to show a documentary outside the regular time slot of his class because one immature man complained a month earlier! Is that leadership?

Here's what I posted in part 1: "Leaders who try to avoid pain will someday be confronted with the worst pain of all, the awareness that the end result of their perpetual pain avoidance is the collapse of the organization they were supposed to be leading. Are you called to lead? If so, and if you’re not ready to experience and tolerate some pain, then please say no to the call. Whatever organization you’re being called to lead will be better off without you in leadership. If you’re ready to deal with some pain, then step up and buckle in, because it’s gonna hurt."

What that elder should have done was go to the man who complained and said to him, "Look, I love you brother, but your immaturity and your attitude towards those who disagree with you in an area where scripture is silent, is divisive, it is damaging our witness in this community, it is sinful, and we are not going to tolerate it!" Now that would have been showing some leadership. Would that man have left? Maybe. Would he have taken others with him? Possibly. Could it have been painful? Yes. And that's exactly my point! Your thoughts.

Monday, August 06, 2007

My Son

William Riley North - "You're SOOOOO Good-Lookin!"

P.S: Ryan - sorry for cutting your kids out of the picture.