At a Friend’s House, On Thursday

22 March 2020

When I proposed giving up church for Lent, I had no idea that it would end up happening so literally, but here we are. In a world of virtual church services, the question of the Lord’s Table comes up. When we’re gathered around a laptop live-streaming a service in the living room, do we take communion, or don’t we?

In the Eastern and Roman communions, of course, the answer is an unequivocal “No!” The Table has to be administered by a priest, and that’s that. In Anglican praxis, the elements have to be consecrated by a priest, but can be delivered by someone else, which presents interesting logistical challenges.

But since that kind of priesthood doesn’t actually exist in the New Covenant anyway, I’m mostly interested in what everybody else should do. For many groups, it’s a tricky question. We’ve worked hard to preserve the specialness of the Table. We don’t want people to treat it casually. And so for many churches, the answer will be no. The Lord’s Table is for when we gather together, they will say; let’s wait until we can gather again.

I propose a different take. I think this is the litmus test for what we really believe constitutes the church. When we’re telling people that they will have to live-stream the service because we’re not allowed to gather in groups of more than 10, we have been very quick to tell them that the church building is just the building; the people are the church. We have been quick to say that we are just as much the church when we are assembled in praise in our respective living rooms. So my question is: do we really believe that, or don’t we? If we withhold communion, we don’t. We’re saying, “You’re the church…but not really.” We’re affirming the the whole property-owning, weekly production-manufacturing, corporate structure as the real church — and you gathered in your living room with a few friends and neighbors as something less than that.

If it’s a few believers gathered in the spare room of a private house, is it still the church? Yes! Should the church come to the Table? Well…duh. Is it okay that it’s not in a church building on a Sunday? Well…WWJD? He celebrated the Lord’s Table with a few friends in a private home, on a Thursday! Oh, the scandal!

So yes, we should do this. And also yes, we ought to train people not to take it lightly. This is serious business. We could do worse than simply follow Paul’s directions, thus:

Leader: On the night He was betrayed, Jesus took the bread after supper, and when He had given thanks, broke it, saying, “This is My body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of Me. [prays] Lord God, thank you for the broken body of Your Son our Savior, who was  crucified for us. 

Leader breaks the bread, distributes it. All eat.

Leader: In the same way He took the cup after supper, saying “This is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” [prays] Father, thank You for the shed blood of Jesus Christ, who raises us into new life.

Leader distributes the cup (however you’re doing it)*, and all drink.

Leader: As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

*There are many details that this order of service does not address. Wine or grape juice? What if you can’t get either? What if you’re out of bread? Do you use a common cup? Do you pass hand to hand around the Table, or does everyone receive directly from the leader?

You know what? We can have many lively debates about what would be best. I’ve hosted some such debates right here (and here) on this blog. But the bottom line is that it is better to obey imperfectly than to disobey because we’re paralyzed by perfectionism.

We’ve all done this before; let’s approximate the communion service we’re familiar with as best we can with the materials we have available. We can fill out the details later; today, let’s just obey, confident that our Father, while perfect, is not a perfectionist. We are already fully accepted in Christ; let’s be confident of that acceptance and draw near to God by the means that He has ordained for us.

 

 

 


Giving Up Church for Lent

25 February 2020

In America, a church is (usually) both a body and a corporation, and this brings with it certain tensions. The body and the corporation need many of the same resources, but use those resources in very different ways.

I was once a Pastor of Discipleship and Ministry Logistics (yes, all of those words were literally in my job title). This meant — on paper — that I was responsible to serve the body by helping people grow more like Jesus, and also responsible to serve the corporation by making sure bulletins got made on time, we didn’t run out of copy paper, and so on. It put me in a nearly perfect position to observe the tug-of-war between the body and the corporation.

In the two years I held that position, I got plenty of feedback and support around my duties to the corporation. If I needed a piece of information by Thursday to get it into the bulletin, someone would work hard to get it to me by Thursday. (And if the bulletin was late, boy, I’d hear about it.) There was an appropriate level of concern over whether I got the copier paper order in on time. I would get support (and accountability) in executing big events that advertised us to the community, and so on.

In that same span of time, nobody — not my boss, not a single deacon or elder, literally nobody — ever checked to see if I was discipling anyone, how it was going, if I needed support. Not once. The part of my job description that had to do with the needs of the body was simply not a priority. Obviously, this is a particularly egregious example. I wish I could say that it was unusual, but as I look at the American church, I don’t think it is.

I suspect that part of the reason we slip into this pitfall is that the life of the body is hard to quantify in ways you can talk about at board meetings, while the work of the corporation lends itself to metrics. Given the choice between chasing down local business sponsors for the community super bowl party and engaging in a messy conversation with a young mom who’s struggling with her calling as a Christ-follower, which use of your time will give you something concrete to report at the end of the day? Which one gives the organization a bigger boost?

And so we give the young mom the brush-off; after all, she’ll still be around tomorrow, and the super bowl party is coming up fast. We make 37 calls to get 3 corporate sponsors, and report our progress. Oh yeah, and we ordered copier paper too — we’re running a little low.

The young mom doesn’t make it to the super bowl party; hit hard by postpartum depression and with no support, she barely leaves the house to get groceries. Her husband does the best he can, but he’s working long hours and he doesn’t know who to ask for help. Lost sheep don’t report themselves missing, so it’s weeks before anyone even realizes that we haven’t seen them around for a while….

In many times and places, there is no corporation. When we are persecuted, they burn the church buildings, confiscate the bank accounts, and dissolve the corporations, but the church continues. We pray, baptize, preach, encourage one another, love one another, care for widows and orphans, the sick and the poor. This is the body; this is what the church actually is.

Despite how this post may sound, I am not anti-corporation. The corporation is a machine designed to extend the body’s reach and help it operate more efficiently, and at its best, it succeeds admirably. For too many, though, the corporation assumes a status at least equal to the body — and no man can serve two masters.

When the corporation has become the master, then the needs of the body take a back seat to the necessary maintenance and appurtenances of the corporation. To sustain those things requires a lot of time and attention from a slick corps of religious professionals, along with a big budget and a ton of well-organized volunteer hours. With all that going on, we are greatly tempted to cluelessness, to a feckless assumption that of course the needs of the body are being cared for — that’s what all this is (supposedly) for, after all.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
-“The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden

The reality is rather uglier. Relationships don’t build themselves. Sheep don’t shepherd themselves, or freeze in time when neglected. Lost sheep don’t report themselves lost. The work of the body is time-consuming, labor-intensive, messy. It can’t really be mass-produced. Jesus made disciples in small batches, and that’s just the best way to do it.

If we let Jesus show us the way, He will tell us what to do:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

We serve Christ; Christ commanded us to care for and build up the Body. The corporation must be our slave — a theologically obvious fact which we are constantly tempted to forget. Why is it so hard to remember this? Because we have created a system where we are constantly catechized to treat the slave as our master. If you say “I work for Boeing,” you are naming your master. If you say, “I work for First Baptist Church,” what are you doing? We have put the slave’s name everywhere that (in our culture) we put the master’s name: the branding, the building, the paychecks.

Christ cares first for the Body. We can’t serve both Christ and the corporation. Because we cannot elevate both, we can only allow the corporation to exist in our lives if we are willing to make a serious spiritual discipline out of despising it. If we are not consciously and constantly re-catechizing ourselves to despise the corporation, we will find ourselves making it our master.

And so — and this is a first for me — I’m going to propose giving up something for Lent.  Give up some bit of service to the corporation — church bulletins, say — and devote that effort and time to serving the Body.


Missing an Important Point

18 February 2020

In last week’s post, I commended to your attention a set of Theopolis Conversations posts on Paths to Human Maturity. As you’ll have noticed if you read them, there was one very sharply dissenting voice. In a follow-up post after Dr. Field’s rejoinder, Wilson moderates his stance somewhat. Now to my eye, Wilson missed a whole slew of considerations, about which more later, perhaps.

More important, though, the entire conversation about whether to undertake projects like Dr. Field’s missed a vital point.

Even if the conversation were undesirable, it’s no longer optional. The horse has left the barn. The unbelievers we meet, and our parishioners as well, are neck-deep in depth psychology and Zen-derived mindfulness practices. Our whole culture is. They are having this conversation whether we join in or not. Many of them have found these beliefs and practices tangibly beneficial. I know addicts who testify that mindfulness practices have helped them stay clean, trauma survivors who testify that mindfulness practices have helped them recover, master their fear, embark on relationships they never could have had before. Similar claims can be rightly made for depth psychology. These people often testify that they sought aid and comfort in the church and found none, then found it elsewhere. The question, to them, is not whether these beliefs and practices highlight questions they should ask of Christianity. It’s whether Christianity has anything to offer to the conversation at all.

The truth is that Jesus will reframe the whole conversation in the most productive and glorious way possible. Unfortunately, the church is not really prepared to represent Him well.

Here is the claim we’re going to have to make: All the things that helped them, all those things exploit the way God made the world to work. Moreover, the features of the world that they have exploited without quite understanding them are more fully revealed in Jesus Christ, and what they have experienced to this point is the very least of God’s good gifts. Therefore, they should forsake these systems of thought and practice that enable them to muddle along without acknowledging God, and embrace the freedom that comes in knowing Him, and not needing to hide from His revelation.

That’s the case we need to make, and we will need to give a compelling, detailed presentation of it. Are we, their shepherds, prepared to make that case?

Very few of us are even marginally ready. Virtually none are ready to do it well.

How will we get ready? By going it alone, on the fly, caught flatfooted when someone starts talking about what meditation has done for them? Not likely. We’re Christians. We are a body. We prepare best together, in exactly the kind of public, collaborative, confessionally committed study that Wilson tried so hard to stop.


Just the Server, not the Chef

4 February 2020

When talking about the Lord’s Table, the first observation to make is that the command is “Take and eat,” not “Take and explain.” A life of obedient Table observance is necessary; the explanation, while theologically important, is really just something to argue about over a cold beer—very secondary by comparison.

The second observation is that it can’t possibly be wrong to simply observe the Table as we’re taught in the New Testament. When I serve someone the bread, I tell them “This is the body of Christ, broken for you.” I say this because Jesus said this. I do not explain further, because Jesus didn’t. It can’t be wrong to just do what Jesus did. (Or what Paul laid down, following Christ’s example.) Now, it’s possible that various alterations and elaborations are also ok (and note that Paul doesn’t quite do exactly what Jesus did either). But it can’t be wrong to just stick very closely to the biblical examples we’re given. (And as a practical matter when you’re celebrating the Table with people from multiple churches, sticking very closely to the biblical text avoids a lot of sticky difficulties.)

The third observation is that it’s possible to waaaaay overdo the search for an explanation. Aquinas tried to explain the realities of the Table in Aristotelian terms, which sounds a bit precious to modern ears. The contemporary equivalent would be someone setting out to explain the Table through a clever application of quantum mechanics. (“See, in the first three dimensions, it’s bread, but in the 17th dimension, it’s the body…”) Um, no. Let’s not.

So a minister is well within his rights to say what the New Testament says, stop there, and decline to comment further. In sensitive company, that’s often exactly what I do.

But since we’re all friends here, let’s crack a cold one and chat a little. I’d say we’re pretty well stuck with some kind of real presence. The alternative to believing in Christ’s real presence at the Table is believing in His real absence, and that won’t do. A Corinthian abusing the Table can’t be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord if the body and blood of the Lord are not present.

Of course the bread and wine remain bread and wine, symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but let us not forget that there is a class of symbols that accomplish what they signify. When I gave my wife a ring, in the presence of witnesses, with the words, “With this ring I thee wed…” — the ring is a symbol, all right. But it is a symbol that accomplishes what it signifies.

Likewise, in a way that I flatly decline to speculate about, I maintain that the bread and wine are symbols of the presence of Christ that accomplish what they signify. In them, Christ is truly present, and through eating and drinking, He is present in you. You are the body of Christ, because you are what you eat. You want to know how that works in detail? Way above my pay grade, man. I’m just the server, not the chef.

I’d recommend John Williamson Nevin’s work for further reading on this.


Letter to a Successful Minister

8 October 2019

This post is a composite of letters and conversations over the years. I’m posting it now because I haven’t had one of these interactions in a while, so nobody will think I’m taking aim at them in particular. I am targeting a general tendency in our culture, not a particular person.

Dear Luke,

It was good to hear from you. I’m glad Janice and the kids are doing so well, and the house is beautiful. Janice has really worked hard on the remodel, and it shows. On the ministry front—wow! It usually takes several years for a pastor to really settle into a new church, but it seems like God is already doing amazing things. I’m happy to see it all coming together for you.

I couldn’t help but notice the rebuke implicit in the way you dismissed my bivocational situation with “we all have to grow up sometime.” I suppose I could just let it pass as one of those things that love covers a multitude of, but since we’re corresponding, and since it stung, I’d like to speak to it.

I hope you will bear with me in a little Pauline foolishness. I will shortly recover my wits and have more sensible things to say, but I need to get this bit off my chest first: You look at the trajectory of my life and see a disaster, a failure to grow up. I say that we have both pursued God—not by any means perfectly, but nonetheless with reckless abandon. What do we have to show for it?

In God’s providence, you have a ministerial career. Now, I want to give you credit where it is due. You have been sensible and disciplined in your finances, and you’ve foregone luxuries and saved aggressively to get where you are. You are now reaping the rewards of your labor, as well you should. But you have also been called to labor in a particular situation: God called you to the suburbs, and you are reaping the material rewards of ministering in an upper-middle class suburban church. I don’t begrudge you that, but I certainly do resent that you think your generous full-time salary is the simple result of growing up.

You grew up in an upper-middle class church, you attended such churches through college and seminary, and you are now ministering in one. In God’s providence, those churches have been your whole world. There’s nothing wrong with that, but lift up your eyes, buddy: that’s a fraction of the worldwide church. Tomorrow, God could call you to a church in a tiny farming community that simply can’t support a full-time pastor, especially one with a wife and kids. You would then find yourself just as grown up, but nowhere near as wealthy–and definitely in need of another job to make ends meet. But right now, in God’s providence, you are where you are.

By that same providence, I am where I am. “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” I’m not quite that much like Jesus, but I’m not living the American Dream, either. I have followed where God led, to the best of my ability. I’ve certainly made some mistakes along the way, some of them errors in judgment and others due to the ways in which I’m damaged goods and I haven’t healed yet. But God makes all things new in time, and I trust His hand in the process.

Although I’ve served in a number of pastoral roles—and still do, in fact—I never achieved the dream that I had in mind when I was first called into ministry: senior pastor of a mid-sized church, with a paycheck to match, which would enable me to buy a house and raise (which in our case also means adopt) children. I wanted to serve God in the role He called me to, and I wanted a family and a house. (Which is to say, I envisioned the same thing you have.) In terms of how we were both raised, that’s not a lot to ask for—and yet I don’t have it. Nor is there any real reason to believe that the dream is lurking just over the horizon, if only I push a little harder, persist a little further. So measured by the bright vision of my expectations as a 16-year-old, I have failed.

But as you said, we all have to grow up sometime. The world is a much bigger place than I pictured it at 16, and God has a lot more variety up His sleeve than we were led to believe. And let’s be honest, what we were led to expect doesn’t match up particularly well with what Jesus and the apostles had, does it? They made a lot less money. I have come to see that there was nothing actually biblical about my dream. 

Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the pastor of a strong and wealthy church pulling in a 6-figure salary has anything to feel guilty about. But God called me to pastor a church of homeless folks; I’ve no reason to expect the same salary as that guy. God calls one man to be Solomon and another to be John the Baptist, and if they fulfill their respective callings, neither has anything to be ashamed of. Nor does someone like Paul, sometimes abased and sometimes abounding. There is nothing inevitable or especially holy about one of these as over against the others. They are each just one way that a life of service can look—one among many.

And so as I sling no recriminations your way, I ask you to return the favor. If you see character flaws in me, by all means speak up. I’m open to correction. But if your criticism is based entirely on my failure to attain the American dream, then I invite you to use some of your paid study time to re-read the Gospels and Acts–not to mention the Old Testament–with an eye to identifying the patterns of ministry that God finds acceptable. I think you’ll find a wider variety than you presently allow for.

Blessings,

Tim


Our Own Elsas

17 September 2019

So I’m sitting in Johnny’s Pizza on my lunch break, and the radio’s playing. “Red Letters” by Crowder. “Play that Funky Music” by Wild Cherry. “Let it Go” by Idina Menzel.

Let It Go?

How many songs from a Disney kids’ movie are getting radio play 6 years later?

The movie came out in 2013. In pop culture, that’s ancient history. To put it in perspective, that’s the same year Planes, World War Z, and Iron Man 3 came out. You don’t see anything off those sound tracks getting airtime.

But here is Idina Menzel on the radio, singing the one thing from that movie that turned out to be an enduring addition to our cultural legacy (enduring in pop culture terms, anyway).

The plot of the film follows princess Elsa through her journey:

  • hiding her ability (and loathing herself because she has it),
  • exposure to the whole kingdom
  • her community fears and rejects her
  • she isolates herself from the community, freezing the whole kingdom and nearly committing murder as a result
  • she eventually comes to terms with her ability, the community receives her, and she’s able to use her gifts for the benefit of the community.

Now, taking a look at that story arc, ask yourself: which one of those story beats is immmortalized in the song that has outlasted every other part of the movie?

It’s not the ending, where Elsa integrates with her community. No, it’s when she’s maximally alienated, inadvertently freezing the whole kingdom, and about to nearly kill a few people. (On that last: if this were an action movie instead of an animated kids’ flick, Elsa would definitely have killed the two assassins, with the audience cheering her on.)

When she doesn’t care about anyone. When she is ignoring everyone else so hard that she’s destroying her entire country–that’s what resonated with the culture so well that we’re still playing it on the radio 6 years later. For that matter, that’s what resonated with the makers of the film so much that they built the musical centerpiece of the film around it (no such iconic anthem adorns the narrative climax of the film, or the resolution). Why is that?

Because as a culture, this is where we are. We identify with mid-film Elsa — alienated, isolated, unwittingly destructive, possibly murderous. And you know what? There are some things to repent of there, but there’s also something to celebrate. Elsa’s story didn’t stop there; ours doesn’t have to either.

We live in a cultural moment when the supernatural is making a comeback. We went through a phase of profound materialism; we didn’t believe in miracles; we believed in electricity, vacuum cleaners, penicillin, and 401(k) plans. But we’re waking up. And waking up, many people—who were told their own version of “conceal, don’t feel” in early life—are now going through Elsa’s teenage rebellion.

They absorbed the culture’s fear and rejection until they couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t hide it anymore, and now they’re done. And they don’t care about a culture that didn’t care about them. My hope and prayer for them is that they recognize this as a stage that will pass, and they grow up and reintegrate, as Elsa did.

We like to think that in the church, none of this has much to do with us. Baloney.

We accommodated the culture, hugely. We suppressed the supernatural in our midst — we were (sometimes) happy to believe in miracles and supernatural doings in the past, so long as we could remain safely insulated by the padding of many centuries. Many of us refuse to believe such things even in church history, still less in the present day. When it comes to supernatural doings in the church, if it’s not in Acts, it didn’t happen, and if it is in Acts, it’s “transitional,” not to be expected today. They get you going and coming — and this is why many people with genuine supernatural gifting find no home in the churches.

But we cannot afford such comforting lies. We have our own Elsas out there on the mountainside. It’s time to go get them.


Seven Theses on Practical Unity

30 July 2019

Since moving to Englewood, I have been blessed to be involved in the nuts-and-bolts practice of Church unity. The pastors here talk about the One Church in Englewood, and mean it. They love each other, pray fervently for each other, and long for the unity they enjoy to spread to their congregations. Among the participants are Messianic Jews, Dutch Reformed, Anglicans, Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, nondenominational folks. It’s not every tribe, tongue and nation, but we’re getting there.

As I observe discussions in the wider Christian world about unity across churches and denominations, I see some key points being overlooked, and so I’d like to offer the following seven theses on the practice of unity:

  1. The unity of all God’s people is internal to the gospel, not simply a natural downstream result of it.
  2. Jesus prayed for His people to be visibly unified in a way that would induce the world to believe in Him. Unity has been essential to our testimony and evangelism from earliest days. (John 17:20-26)
  3. Paul rebuked Peter for failing to eat with some of Christ’s people, and described it as “hypocrisy,” a failure to be “straightforward about the gospel.” Unity is essential to our confessional and practical faithfulness to justification by faith. (Galatians 2:11-21)
  4. Since practical, visible unity is so important, we must obey as far as we can. Like perfect sanctification, perfect unity will have to await the last day, but we can and should anticipate the unity of the last day now, as Paul insisted and Jesus prayed for.
  5. Jesus told us to love our neighbors. A mentality that defines “neighbor” as “those like me” (ethnicity, confessional agreement, denominational ties, or something else) is exactly what Jesus was speaking against in the parable of the good Samaritan. Loving our neighbors starts with whoever is physically closest. Loving our Christian neighbors starts with whatever Christians are physically closest. (Luke 10:25-37)
  6. Therefore, your neighbor churches are the churches that, in God’s geographical providence, are right down the street. Confessionally allied churches further away are also your neighbors, and you ought to love them too — but not at the expense of the churches nearby. “A friend nearby is better than a brother far away.” (Proverbs 27:10)
  7. The task of the moment is to meet the folks in nearby churches and start getting along with them. Institutional unification of the denominations–and all the problems that will attend it–is not a necessary prerequisite; it will be the last thing that happens. The zipper starts at the bottom, not the top.

I can tell you from experience that when you dig into practical unity, you will have problems. Of course you will. We’re all sinners, and on top of that, we have an enemy who hates what we’re doing. I can also tell you from experience that the overwhelming majority of the problems you think you’re going to have–those are never going to happen. (And of course, many of the problems you do have will be surprises. Such is life; we are not as good at prediction as we think.) Bottom line: future problems–real or imaginary–should not stop us from obeying the Scriptures to the extent that we can, right now.