Christ vs. Church

Harding University’s New President

26 November 2012

When I was at Harding, I was a member of a social club that could sing. And boy did they sing. I sang, too, but not as well as those in the chorus of folks that surrounded me. While my voice didn’t add much to the quality of what was being sung, I did feel as though I belonged, and that my voice was welcomed and perhaps even useful, and that I was a small part of something that mattered, and that in the end I did contribute something unique.

On Rich Little’s blog, a few folks (including friends of mine that I really respect, like Mark Moore, Dusty Rush, Sara Barton, and Mary Beth Picker) have expressed some concern about the appointment of Dr. Bruce McLarty as our new president. The concern is not with Dr. McLarty, mind you, but with the priorities used by the majority of Harding’s Board of Trustees to make the appointment. As I’ve read all of these very powerful (and equally gracious and hope-filled) posts that have articulated so well some of the thoughts and feelings that I have about Harding (and the Church of Christ in general), the thought that I should add my small voice to this chorus of very strong ones has lingered. Perhaps I’m still looking for my place to belong at my beloved alma mater, longing for my voice to be both welcomed and useful, desiring to be a part of something that matters, and that in the end, perhaps I do have something to contribute that is unique.

So here I put on a robe and join this chorus of great singers on the risers, hopefully harmonizing with them, and perhaps with one small solo – that is, one more angle on this that has yet to be presented, and one that I feel uniquely positioned to give a voice. photo

I write as a proud Harding Alumni, like all of these others. I cherish my experience there, for how it grew me up in Christ, gave me a spiritual family, and launched me into a life of Kingdom impact and ministry. They were simply the greatest four (and a half – I’m slow, and didn’t want to leave) greatest years of my life.

I write as a parent of three kids who already want to go there, following in the footsteps of their dad, their grandmother, and their preacher great-grandfather. So my hopes are significantly invested in Harding’s near-future, since the most important people to me and my wife will be saturated in the environment that Harding creates.

I write as a former youth minister. I spent 14 years with “the next generation” and have not had one year where students that I have been blessed to call friends haven’t been at Harding, most of them now alumni themselves.

I write as a minister of a “mainstream Church of Christ.” At least I think I am after reading the Christian Chronicle’s interview with Dr. McLarty. Our church family practices what he lists there as “the distinctive convictions of baptism for the remission of sins, acapella music in worship, and male spiritual leadership in the congregation,” making us the very kind of church that Harding specifically says it wants to show solidarity with, as stated in their “Expanded Mission Statement,” that he quotes. Further, our church family has Harding alumni on staff, in our eldership, and in our membership. We have students that have returned from Harding, are currently at Harding, are about to attend Harding, and our youth group is taking a trip to visit there this coming weekend. We are a real life, living and breathing brochure of what Harding wants to produce, complete with an atmosphere that promotes and ensures Harding’s continuation into its bright future.

I write as a follower of Christ. While this is the most important identity marker for me in my life, and in this list, it is not the last one I’ll mention, because this next one (which is the natural result of this and the previous one) is more to the point of what I’m compelled to contribute to this conversation.

I write as a minister trying to serve the Church of Christ in a way that is faithful to both the Church of Christ and to Jesus Christ. And it is from this experience that I offer one more verse to this chorus that has been present in many of these posts, but not stated explicitly, and it is this:

When our loyalty to a Church of Christ value and our loyalty to a Jesus Christ value collide, it is the Church of Christ value that should give way.

Ironically, I learned this from my Church of Christ heritage. I grew up being taught to be wise concerning any religious belief suggested, to never blindly put the weight of my salvation upon other people’s convictions without weighing them against scripture. I, and a vast army of my peers, took this to heart. But when we applied this Church of Christ teaching to all Church of Christ teachings, we found that some of our teachings were only “distinctive convictions of the Church of Christ” (who we rightly love, appreciate, and want to be faithful to), but they were not Biblically-unquestionable distinctive convictions of Jesus Christ (whom we rightly love, appreciate, and want to be faithful to even more).

Since Bible demands this, it should surprise no one that the mainstream Church of Christ has begun to demand this, because we are above all else, people of the Book. It is our continued study of and persistent faithfulness to the living and active contents of this Book that keeps our movement faithful to its heritage. This and only this will help us to remain faithful to our name, that is to remain a church that is “of Christ.” 

Dr. McLarty, in the Christian Chronicle piece, makes this powerful observation and corresponding commitment: “As part of my doctoral work, I studied the tendency of faith-founded colleges to drift away from their founding church, to abandon their core mission, and often, to become enemies of the ideas and principles on which they were started. This solidified my resolve to do all I could do to see that this does not happen to Harding.”

I love our new president’s resolve to not allow Harding to drift away from the Church of Christ. Let’s stay a family, and keep Harding in the family. We can remain open to all without having to drift away from the Church of Christ. And let’s certainly not throw this association to the wind in order to attract more students or become more academically or athletically prestigious. Amen! While I appreciate his concern, I don’t sense Dr. McLarty will have to fight as hard as he is preparing to protect this. I’ve not heard any among our Harding family that wants to go the way of Duke, or Yale, or Harvard, each of whom did lose their attachment to their founding church affiliation, and then eventually lost their attachment to Christ and the Bible. If a call that threatens this comes from some segment among us in the future, I will gladly be counted among the folks who will ensure that he does not stand alone in his resolve. But I haven’t heard anyone call for or even have a desire for this. I know that I and those like me do not. All we are asking for is that Harding would (officially) agree that when loyalty to a Church of Christ value and our loyalty to a Jesus Christ value collide, it is the Church of Christ value that should give way.

What is the “core mission” he doesn’t want abandoned? Is it the mission to exalt Jesus Christ? Or is it the mission to exalt some distinctive doctrines of the Church of Christ?

What are the “ideas and principles” he is resolved to keep Harding from becoming an enemy? Are the person of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom, and the Gospel message the ideas and principles upon which Harding started? Or, are a distinctive set of Church of Christ doctrines and worship practices the ideas and principles upon which Harding started?

This really matters.

The mainstream Churches of Christ, many of which are full of Harding students – past, present, and future – has necessarily learned from the Bible that it must distinguish between these things. Only the “rigid legalism on the Right” in our fellowship would assert, for example, that there is no difference between the Gospel message and our historically distinctive Church of Christ worship practices. One is centered on Christ; the other is centered on Sunday morning gatherings. One is worth dying for; the other is an edifying practice that our churches utilize to worship God. One saves souls, the other does not.

Dr. McLarty continues by saying: “In the reflection chapter at the end of my dissertation, I wrote that my research had crystallized within my thinking the following goal: ‘To prepare Harding University to remain Christian in our core identity until Jesus returns.’”

There is none of us in any Church of Christ, even those who are extremely “Right” or “Left,” that would disagree with this crystallized goal as it is written. Further, this is not even a uniquely Church of Christ statement.

Why is this important to note?

Because, another historical heritage marker of our fellowship is the taking of universal, Biblical, and Christian words and packing them with uniquely Church of Christ meanings. If his phrase “remain Christian” means “remaining faithful to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ,” then great. But if he intends the phrase to actually mean, “remaining faithful to the distinctive doctrines and worship practices of the historical Church of Christ,” then many of us in the mainstream Church of Christ cringe, concerned that Harding is not being faithful to a Word of God that is still living and active, and to a scripture that is still useful to teach us, rebuke us, correct us, and train us to a fuller and truer righteousness as a fellowship.

In the article, Dr. McLarty quotes the 2008 Expanded Mission Statement (proving, I guess, that we can expand our mission statement should our followership of Christ call for it) when it says: “Though we live in a time of significant confusion over our brotherhood’s identity, we are determined that Harding University will become captive to neither a rigid legalism on the Right nor a formless liberalism on the Left. ‘With gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:16, NIV) we continue to affirm such distinctive convictions of the mainstream Churches of Christ as baptism for the remission of sins, a cappella music in worship, and male spiritual leadership in congregations.”

The mainstream Church of Christ that I serve has not changed these distinctive practices, but we have prayerfully and necessarily moved with regard to our distinctive convictions. With gentleness and respect, we affirm such distinctive convictions as Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, Christ-honoring music in worship, and Christ-centered spiritual leadership in congregations. This shift has come, not from some slippery slope caused by a move away from scripture’s authority, but by a slow, methodical, and diligent study of scripture and a stricter adherence to it. As a result, our traditional tight grip on baptism has become tighter, but with a focus on Christ rather than on baptism. Our traditional practice of acapella music has not been replaced, but moved from being a Biblical requirement for salvation (demanding our judgment of those who practice differently) to a beautiful and chosen preference, allowing us to better follow the Biblical requirement of not passing judgment on disputable matters, which has kept lessor issues from hijacking our soul-saving focus Christ who saves. Our tradition of male spiritual leadership in the congregations is still practiced organizationally and positionally, but we are learning how to not hinder the powerful exertion of spiritual giftedness that is so obviously placed in both men and women by Christ, who’s Kingdom seems to operate in a way where it doesn’t distinguish between male and female (Galatians 3:28), and seems to teach and promote the priesthood of all believers, not just male believers.

These are examples of the tension that is currently present in the mainstream Churches of Christ.

It is our faithfulness to scriptural authority, the most important and cherished value of the Church of Christ, and the one upon which all others are measured by, that has moved us here. If Harding wants to stay connected to the mainstream Church of Christ, well, this is what we are doing and learning and struggling with.

As a child of this movement, a son of Harding, and a minister out here working to be faithful to both the Church of Christ and Jesus Christ, I really need Harding to help me. I don’t need it to be super sure of itself regarding where our constant Bible study will lead us in practice, nor do I need or want it to be hasty about dismissing our conclusions or practices from the past. What would be useful is for Harding to use its talented resources and faculty, its momentum in successfully ministering to our kids, and its powerful Kingdom influence to lead and provoke these hard introspective conversations that our brotherhood’s constant Bible study demands. It is exhilarating to experience Harding when it is the instigator of such honest, probing, and integrity-filled faithfulness to Bible study. But it is disheartening and discouraging to experience Harding as the entrenched guardian of the honest conclusions of our father’s and grandfather’s Bible study.

It is important to note that among almost all Christian movements, a commitment to an external religion, with all of its forms and rituals, attempts to replace that movement’s commitment to Jesus Christ alone. While I am somehow encouraged that we in the Church of Christ do not have a monopoly on this problem, I have been discouraged by our movement thinking that its commitment to scripture made us immune to it. This is hard for all of us to swallow, but humble Bible study demands it, and humble Bible study is doing so in the mainstream Church of Christ, to the praise and glory of God.

Some of the comments on Rich’s blog are asking why so many students, including those who’ve posted concern on his blog, are leaving Harding so spiritually successful, and why enrollment continues to grow, if this commitment to traditional Church of Christ doctrine and worship practices are so desperately needing to be revisited. They suggest that Harding “must be doing something right” or this kind of fruit could not be produced. Let me conclude my thoughts by offering another possible explanation.

When I was at Harding, there was a distance between the Board (and the values that they voted to have officially sanctioned by Harding) and the students (with our need to have the space to safely question everything if we were, in fact, to be “educated for eternity”). It was this distance, not Harding’s stance, that allowed me and my peers to find our own faith in Jesus Christ. So instead of Harding’s officially stated core convictions being the proactive, involved, and fully alive instigators of my spiritual growth, they served instead as representative of a static, entrenched, and superficial set of church practices that I was actively searching for a God to save me and the world from. Much like Christ, who chose to use the Pharisee’s Bible-justified, but non-life-giving, non-soul-saving, missing-the-point religious convictions as a backdrop for his disciples to learn about the real and vibrant Kingdom of God, I suggest that Christ had created space on campus for students to use Harding’s Bible-justified, but non-life-giving, non-soul-saving religious convictions as a backdrop to teach me about the real and vibrant Kingdom of God, too.

So I’m in a dilemma, because I agree with the observation that there are many alumni who went through Harding’s environment (that at least half of the Board has now voted to maintain) and have come out the other side very convicted, Christ-centered, Kingdom-promoting, Gospel-sharing citizens (as opposed to very convicted, CofC-centered, CofC-doctrine promoting, CofC-worship-practice-sharing ones). Something about this environment works to produce people committed to creating truer environments.

So the dilemma: do I want to change this backdrop that Harding’s official positions provide to create this faith-forming space between the Board and the students? Might this be a developmentally appropriate environment for the 18-22 year old to be in? Do our sons and daughters, like the disciples, need a somewhat rigid-Right institutional position to use for their own spiritual “teething,” providing a useful, off-the-mark ecclesiology upon which to discover a truer, more scriptural one? I must admit, nothing drove me into the scripture more than when my honest questions about deeply entrenched Church of Christ doctrines were met with pushback from some of the powers that be at Harding. It was perfect timing for me, and a perfect environment for me to zealously find my own faith in Jesus Christ. I don’t need an answer to this dilemma. I’m grateful for it, because it makes me both unafraid of and hopeful about, and finally, trusting God for where this all goes.

I can disagree with some convictions of some of the Board and still trust them as powerful and loving and Godly contributors to our student’s spiritual growth. One thing is for sure, and I want to be absolutely clear about this, I believe the motives behind their convictions are the exact same as mine. A desire to love God and be faithful to scripture.

That said, I would much rather Harding be a place that has stated core convictions, a Board, and a president that teaches our students, in institutional word and institutional deed, that the mainstream Church of Christ is all about faithfulness to Jesus Christ, no matter what. And this, even when that means that the Church of Christ must itself be transformed by the renewing of its corporate mind, because our movement-long commitment to being people of the Book will not be abandoned, even if that Book requires that we abandon other, lesser, movement-long commitments once seen as requirements of that Book.

While these thoughts and feelings are addressing issues that pre-date my knowing Dr. McLarty’s name, since I have mentioned him and his words in this piece, I wanted everyone to know that I am sending him these thoughts in letter form, addressed to him for his consideration. I don’t know Dr. McLarty personally, but people that I respect, respect him greatly, and I intend to continue to support Harding and him during his tenure there, which I know, one way or another, will exalt Christ and advance the Kingdom. I will be forever grateful to him for being willing to serve the Kingdom in this way.

May God bless us all, and may His grace fall over us, and may love abound even in our disagreements.

Moving in to Elderhood

22 May 2012

I’m making up a word for this piece. My automatic spellcheck has it underlined in red each time I type it, but I need it.

One of the tragedies of youth is that we receive truckloads and truckloads of good advice, truth, and wisdom that never makes it into our character. It seems that in our energetic youthfulness (most of which has come to us naturally) and our lack of attentiveness (most of which has been developed in us culturally), much of it is lost.

But more tragic is when these youthful qualities are never overcome, unlearned, and transcended as we age. I know far too many grown men and women who move far too frantically, ever-running after that elusive ‘something’ that is considered worthwhile, absolutely necessary, or required.

Now I admit that a big part (the biggest, I think) of growing up from childhood to adulthood is learning how to ‘take responsibility,’ and this quite rightly leads us in pursuits that are genuinely worthwhile, necessary, or required.

But should there not be another growing up? Should there not be a move from adulthood to, let’s say, elderhood?

In our culture these days, there seems to be a powerful lack of adulthood. Oh, there are plenty of folks who have passed their teenage years chronologically, but not socially or personally. I know plenty of chronological adults who have lived off their parents well into their 30s and only stopped once they could move on to living of their spouses, or their government, or the charity of good people.

But worse still, and I think far more problematic, is the powerful lack of elderhood. True elders seem to move more slowly, speak less often, control fewer things, and instead, contemplate more, notice people more deeply, and only walk into things if invited (and are not shy about letting others know that they are willing to be invited).

This lack of elderhood may actually be the real problem behind the lack of adulthood. Adults aren’t really that focused on the patient and painstaking formation of children into adults, and simply can not be in the business of forming adults into elders. It takes a unique depth of character, deliberation of thought, and real experiences of transitioning from “hood” to “hood” to focus on any kind of people development. And these skills and abilities are earned, and uniquely present in true elders. 

And there just are not that many. And the ones there are, we adults don’t have or make time to access, and we children don’t even know that we need to.

I was late to the game, but sometime in my 20s I think I finally made the full move, taking my child hood off and putting on my adult hood. I can look back and see clearly this lack of mentors. I remember as a youth minister in Houston, sitting in the shade at Astroworld between rides with a student that I was mentoring and pouring into, sharing about and eventually tearing up at my own lack of mentors pouring into me.

But looking back, I can also see clearly how God fathered me through all this, filling the gaps in my life with multitudes of unfinished men and women, all with different pieces of the puzzle, offered to me by God without most of them even knowing it.

But now I’m eager and hungry to fully and definitely, even if fearfully, lay down my adult hood and pick up the hood of an elder.

I mean nothing magnificent or honor-bringing about this. As a matter of fact, by all the worlds standards, this seems to be a “step down” in the social and institutional hierarchy of who we deem important these days. Less (but more powerfully) seen, fewer (but more intimate) relationships, smaller (but more impactful) work.

I want to move into a reality where I know the peaceful depths of what Jesus called the Gospel, living within what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, and proclaim it all to those who invite me into their lives as the Truth that will set them free.

Would it not be great if you were as surrounded by these interested and wise “elders” as you are by older people? Wouldn’t it be neat if, whenever you see anyone older than you, could could assume that they are more mature than you in every human way? Would it not be cool to have these kinds of sage-like “elders” to choose between for President and other offices?

I think that this “elderhood” is such a lost art, and goes so unacknowledged by our culture, that those few among us who find themselves in it don’t even know that they are. And don’t know how to enjoy it, let alone share it with others.

We need childhood. And we need adulthood. But, God please, bring to us elderhood.

Consuming Christ

9 March 2012

“When you are hungry, do you want to eat and drink the meal, or the vessels used to bring you the meal.” – Yours Truly

I love Jesus Christ.

And while I love the stories about Jesus Christ, the book that contains those stories, the writings in that book written by others that loved him, the literature in that book that set the stage for those stories, the histories in that book that record how those who first loved him went about showing that, the letters in that book between folks who loved him, and all the religious practices and sacraments and people that have pointed me to him, I would trade them all in for Jesus Christ himself.

This may sound odd to you at first. It did to me when I first found myself saying it. But two things opened me up to the idea:

  1. My longing for a real relationship with Jesus and the God he spoke of.
  2. What Jesus, as I read about him in the Bible, said was possible in that regard.

These two things combined like water on a seed in perfect conditions, and a whole new landscape of Christianity came bursting from the depths and into view. It changed my life forever.

Better said, he changed my life forever. I started reading things, seeing things, practicing things, and experiencing things that, even though they had the Bible as their source, the Christianity I grew up with never taught me.

The Christianity of my youth taught me to be baptized, take the Lord’s Supper, and go to church services that practiced worship in a certain prescribed way. All of this, I was told, was “Biblical” – which everyone around me seemed to agree was a weighty and important word – and so I did it all. And I can even deem these teachings as “good” and better yet, “useful” in my journey with and towards Christ.

But let me tell ya (and try not to panic)…

…for one authentically spoken word from Christ to my soul securing its place with him in his Kingdom forever, I would trade my water baptism.

…for one moment of spirit-on-spirit communion with the living Christ, I would trade a lifetime of practicing the Lord’s Supper.

…for the the thick and real presence of Christ with me and on me, I would trade every single religious practice that I hold to, utilize, and teach.

How can this be, you may ask? Do you not need your baptism in order to get your Kingdom securing word from Christ, your supper in order to have actual communion with Christ, your religious practices in order to experience and enjoy Christ’s presence?

Allow me to attempt an explanation of why my integrity demands that I say no. And allow me to utilize Jesus’ words as a guide. (primarily from John 6)  

Many have participated in religious, Biblical things, and even though they were gifts from God, they still were caught in their sin, shame, guilt, and insecurity. This is because what really matters is the Person behind these things, the true treasure from heaven to which they point and lead: Jesus Christ. (Jn 6:49-50)

Jesus Christ alone saves from death. He alone allows you eternity. His giving himself, not his gifts, is what gives life to anyone in the world. If you do not have spiritual (comm-)union with him, have his spiritual presence with and on you, or receive in your spirit his personal word guaranteeing your Kingdom identity, then is it a surprise that you have no life in you, even if you practice Bible-based and truth-connected, but external, things? With a real and personal connection, resurrection is not only believable, but natural, and easy to live in confidence about. But without it (him), you will not be raised to life in the last day, no matter what you did Biblically right externally, because the power of life is not in you, because he is not in you, and you aren’t in him. (Jn 6:51; 53-56)

Jesus is a weighty and personal reality that is to be experienced, not merely an academic and doctrinal reality that is to be believed in and argued for. The intimate relationship that we witness Jesus having with the Father is supposed to be our model for what Jesus is saying we get to be experiencing with him. Tell me, what external practice can deliver on this? (Jn 6:57-58)

This is a hard teaching, you may note. Hard enough that you may not accept it. (Jn 6:52; 60)

And unacceptable enough, that it may offend you. But this is because of some predetermined and well-rehearsed ideas that you carry, not because it can’t or doesn’t fit with what God has done and told you. And this is tragic, because while you sit around being offended, there is so much more to come in this life with Christ that your limiting beliefs do not allow you a category with which to interpret! And getting past your “offendability,” and opening up to a deeper understanding, well, it is required work in order for you to appreciate it. (Jn 6:61-62)

So let me put it as simply and concisely as I can: The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. (Jn 6:63a)

I wish I could make it simpler than that (but Jesus couldn’t either, I guess, so I don’t feel so bad), because even these nine words that explain what I’m talking about require that you open up to the truth they carry for you to understand, accept, and then experience them as the reality that they are. The irony is that this news is the best yet, and what every human is longing for. (Jn 6:63b)

Yet, surprisingly, I know there are many who haven’t the depth of belief to allow for this. For this, you have to be spiritual. You have to allow God to be inclusive of, but more real, vital and necessary than what you can do and experience in the body and with the physical senses and faculties. As someone said to me when I struggled with this, I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you. And that is because this stuff is truly the stuff that can only be worked out between a man and God in dedicated, faith-fueled, practical experience. (Jn 6:64-65)

But many will leave this highest of all gifts, that of Christ himself, and instead will try to find their belief, hope, and eternal life elsewhere. (Jn 6:66; 68-69)

Many will, in direct opposition to Christ’s teaching, insist that the flesh counts for something, which contains just enough truth (when properly understood) that some will attach their hope for life in this world and resurrection in the next to earth-bound, history-based, temporal and physical actions and things. They will take what were meant to be powerful and useful from within the life-giving relationship with Jesus and pretend that they are mandatory and required in order to academically believe that you have the life-giving relationship with Jesus. Without intending to, and with some of the best motives available to man, and denying it all the way, they will look right at Jesus and ask for him to give them some external works to do that will save them. (Jn 6:28)

He won’t do it, mind you. He won’t. He will just constantly, faithfully, and creatively keep on offering them the very treasure that they are looking to gain from those works. He will offer himself. (Jn 6:29)

I love Jesus Christ.

He is the real food. He is the real drink. (Jn 6:55)

All the rest are serving utensils. Do I “need” them to partake of the meal? No. Do I “use” them to partake of the meal. Yes. Powerfully so. Beautifully so. Biblically so. But if I ever say “don’t forsake the assembly” or “take this cup in remembrance of Jesus,” or “this baptism saves you” – it should be taken in the same way as I would say, “you need this plate to eat dinner” or “here’s a cup to drink to some water,” or “this fork feeds you.”

The food and the drink are the point. They are what nourish. They are what sustain. They are what give life. All utensils that help me partake of the actual food and drink, I use faithfully, and I’m grateful for. But I don’t consume them. That would even be dangerous. I use them. I consume Christ.

He, and only he, is what gets me life now and forever. (Jn 14:6)

And life, the eternal kind, is, after all, best described as…him. (Jn 17:3) 

As Jesus often said, if you get it, you get it. (Mt 11:15)

Christianity: Who Is In and Who is Out?

3 February 2012

If Christianity is a certain set of theological facts, then whoever agrees with those facts is in, everyone else is out.

If Christianity is a particular set of worship practices done in a particular way, then whoever organizes their worship services with those practices is in, everyone else is out.

If Christianity is a specific set of moral behaviors, then whoever lives by those moral behaviors is in, everyone else is out.

If Christianity is active participation with or financial backing of the programs and ministries and services of a church, then whoever actively participates with or financially backs the programs of a church is in, everyone else is out.

If Christianity is the steadfast practice of a regular quiet time with God, then whoever has a regular quiet time with God is in, everyone else is out.

If Christianity is knowledge of the Bible, then whoever knows the Bible is in, everyone else is out.

If Christianity is the accurate application of Christ’s teachings to your political views and practices, then whoever applies Christ’s teachings to their political views is in, everyone else is out.

If Christianity is the practice of tolerance, then whoever tolerates everything in everyone is in, everyone else is out.

If Christianity is the practice of getting everyone to believe a certain way, then whoever goes around trying to get everyone to do so is in, everyone else is out.

If Christianity is the thoughtful dialogue between those sincerely interested or invested in Christ, then whoever has a sincere interest or investment in Christ and engages is thoughtful dialogue about it is in, everyone else is out.

And if Christianity is the open and honest, skeptical but hopeful, courageous questioning and challenging of religious or theological beliefs, then whoever does that is in, everyone else is out.

But Christianity is not, in my humble opinion, any of that.

Nothing you can simply do is fully Christianity. While you can’t do nothing and truly be “in” as a Christian, it is not the simple doing of something that makes you Christian. Christianity motivates certain actions in one’s life, but those actions can not be called Christianity.

Nothing you can simply admit to believe is fully Christianity, either. Now, believing certainly matters. And one can not be “in” as a Christian without it, and the objects of those beliefs matter as well. But a simple profession of belief in some theological or historical fact, publically or privately admitted to, even if sealed as true with some sacramental religious action of some sort, is not Christianity.

So what, in my opinion, is Christianity, you may ask?

Before I answer, you need to re-read my list above as a confession. I have or do practice everything on that list. My crime, in my estimation of things, is not that I have or do practice any of those things – only that I call any one of them the sum total of Christianity. In fact, a secret to understanding my conviction about what Christianity is, and who is in and who is out, is to understand what I mean when I say that I think all of the above statements contain “some truth.” I won’t belabor the point today – I’ll just leave it at, “he who has an ear, let him hear.”

I believe quite passionately that Christianity is a way of life.

I believe this way of life is best defined by studying and conforming one’s life to the example and teachings of it’s namesake, Jesus Christ.

I believe the best (but not only) way of studying the life and teachings of Jesus Christ is done by diligently spending time in the Gospels of the Bible.

I believe the best (and only) way of conforming your life to that life and teaching is done by dying to (or putting to death) all other ways of living.

Said another way, Christianity is a life of following and being shaped by the heart, mission, character and priorities of Jesus.

Who is in? Well, it seems to me that Christ would admit anyone into discipleship who sincerely desired to follow him.

I know lots of people who believe like I believe, and practice worship the same I practice worship, and adhere to the same moral code that I adhere to, who simultaneously show very little desire to practice Christianity. On the other hand, I know others who believe very differently than me, who have worship practices that I do not, who struggle profoundly to live the moral life that I have come to practice, but are devoted to following Christ and to conforming their lives more and more into Christ’s way of life.

So who’s in? It’s not my call, praise God, it’s His. I admit that in my practice of “fellowshipping” with people, the farther along that I perceive someone to be in their devotion to following Christ, the deeper the fellowship (friendship, partnership, companionship) I invite. But as to the practice of proclaiming definitively and authoritatively to my fellow man who I think I can declare is “in” or “out,” I just can not do it.

Why?

Because Christianity is described, above all other words, as love. Every single thing I do has to make sense under the banner of Christianity’s greatest command to love God and love others. The Lord I follow said that everything is summed up by this way of living – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Well, I don’t want others to render judgment on me in God’s place, so I will not render judgment on them in God’s place. By doing my best to love everyone, up to and including my enemy, I find myself living in a way that looks more and more like Christ’s way.

God help me.

Converting from Christianity to Christ

5 January 2012

When I was young, I decided to convert from my self-centered life to the religious life. Since then, I have been converting from the religious life to Christ’s way of life.

There is a difference. A huge one.

As I study the teachings of Jesus, for the life of me I can not find where he commands, recommends, or even suggests any religious ritual as the point of what he offers. Instead, he seems to go straight for the heart.

He offers a way of life.

He offers a character.

He offers a set of priorities.

He offers a mission.

And the common denominator between everything he offers is not “religious practices done a certain way” – but LOVE.

Last week, I took another look at his teachings in his famous “Sermon of the Mount” (found in Matthew 5-7) and asked God to summarize them as simply and concisely as possible through me. Here is what came.

Be humble. - Mt 5:3

Be compassionate. – Mt 5:4

Be self-controlled. - Mt 5:5

Desire rightness with God above all else. – Mt 5:6

Show mercy. – Mt 5:7

Exhibit purity. – Mt 5:8

Make peace. - Mt 5:9

Willingly suffer for the good and true. - Mt 5:10

Find the blessing in every circumstance. - Mt 5:11-12

Influence the world appropriately by being the right kind of person. – Mt 5:13-16

Use external religion and rules as aids in creating a life with God. – Mt 5:17-19

Do not let external religion and rules replace your life with God. – Mt 5:20

Be rid of any anger you carry. - Mt 5:21-22

Be as responsible as you can for any anger carried against you. - Mt 5:23-24

Handle difficulties with others relationally, not institutionally. – Mt 5:25-26

Do not indulge sex as recreation. – Mt 5:27-30

Do the work necessary to stay married. - Mt 5:31-32

Have composure enough to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and character enough to stick by it. – Mt 5:33-37

Exert your right to lay down your rights. - Mt 5:38-42

Forgive and love everyone your enemy, like God does His. - Mt 5:43-48

Rebel against being seen as noteworthy by people. – Mt 6:1

Be indifferent about who knows that you give to the needy. - Mt 6:2-4

Pray inwardly always, and let any outward words flow from there. - Mt 6:5-13

Show your favored position in God’s eyes by giving all others favored position in yours. - Mt 6:14-15

Get what your heart needs by valuing God’s view of you only. – Mt 6:16-18

Your felt need for the world’s treasure will steal your possession of the real treasure. - Mt 6:19-24

Be rid of any worry you carry. - Mt 6:25-34

Don’t judge. It destroys your life more than the object of your judgment. - Mt 7:1-5

Do not offer your wisdom to anyone who has not asked for it. – Mt 7:6

Take the posture of seeker and learner to be among the few who find God and God’s way. – Mt 7:7-14

Who you really are shows in the actions you perform, especially when no one but God sees you. - Mt 7:15-23

And then, he finishes with a pretty astounding promise – one that I’m using my life and energy to test.

Live life this way and you will be invulnerable to the troubles of life in every way that matters. - Mt 7:24-27

While all of “God’s people” before (the Jews) and after (the church) him try to contain the Jesus way of life in a certain set of outward worship practices, sometimes self-righteously arguing, dividing, and even warring about them, Jesus goes underneath all of that to the point of it all.

How about this: as Christians, let’s all master the above way of life, which comes straight from the mouth of Jesus, and once that is done, THEN we can discuss what we think about the less important worship practices that would best help folks create, sustain, and share this life found in Christ.

Whattyathink?

My Powerlessness

21 May 2011

I met a man today who owns and runs a company. In that company is another man who embezzled money, lots of money, from this company. I met him, too.

The very unique thing about this is that I met them sitting at the same table. What were they doing at this table? The broad answer is that they were sitting with each other, smack dab in the middle of the tension that had been created by one of their sins against the other, seeing if they could use this tension, this blatant and dishonest wrong, to both change.

The owner of the company had every right to have this employee arrested and put in prison.

He didn’t.

The owner had every right to at least fire this guy who has proven himself untrustworthy and dishonest.

He didn’t.

The owner had every right to at the very least cut his pay, and put him in another position in the company where he was less free to do something like this again.

He didn’t.

Instead, he invited this guy to this table where I met them. And I watched as he offered this guy grace. He offered this guy a chance. He offered this guy the opportunity to transform.

And here’s the kicker: he offered this guy HIMSELF as a companion and friend on the journey.

What does it take for a man like this owner, who holds all the power, who could have punished this man to whatever extent he wanted to, and been “justified”, approved of, and maybe even applauded for doing so, to offer a man like this sinner, who holds no power, has no defense, no excuse, and nothing to defend himself, such a thing as this?

What does it take? It takes meekness.

When the Bible uses the word meek, it is true that it is speaking of people that wield no power to manipulate the world to serve themselves or get things to go their way. In this way, the employee was in the meek position.

But the word meek is also speaking of those who DO have access to the power to move and shake the world to serve themselves or get things to go their way…but DON’T.

And instead, submit their power willingly to the loving agenda of God.

That is what this owner I met was doing at the table with this employee I met.

They were both meek. They were both powerless. One because of his submitting to temptation. One because of his submitting to God. Now, as brothers, both of them are working together, facing their fears, facing themselves, and facing God. As meek brothers, they are powerfully working to transform and experience on this earth the Kingdom that God originally designed for them both in the first place.

The way Jesus said it was, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

I want to be powerless like that. Powerless before God, and powerless because of my need to submit my power to God.

My Neediness

16 May 2011

I need God desperately.

I need him more than food.

I need him more than shelter.

I need him more than clothing.

I need him more than I need my wife.

I need him more than I need my kids.

I need him more than I need my friends.

I need him more than I need my church.

I need him more than I need meaningful work.

I need him more than I need a steady income.

I need him more than good self esteem.

I need him more than his answers.

I need him more than his religion.

I need him more than his calling.

I need him more than his gifts.

I need him more than wisdom.

I need him more than rest.

I need him more than life.

This kind of neediness is only life-giving when directed at God. If I put it on anything or anyone else, I find myself stressed, frustrated, burned out, overwhelmed, over-performing, striving, impressing, defensive, attacking, resenting, escaping, hiding, sleeping, and altogether void of joy. But when I willingly and eagerly direct it at God, humility rushes in, and life fully shows up.

needinessI find myself strong.

I find myself peaceful.

I find myself awake.

I find myself glad.

I find myself grateful.

I find myself amazed.

I find myself loving.

I find myself fully alive.

 

The way Jesus said it was, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

And the way I understand it is, “Advantaged are those who know and live in their neediness for God, for they will experience the fullness, invulnerability, and adventure of heart that they are longing for.” 

What do you think you need more than God?

The Basement Boyz

13 April 2011

This week, a friend of mine asked me about my men’s group and whether or not we had room for another.

I told him yes and then gave this brief description (or warning!) of the atmosphere we co-create with God and with each other so that he could see what he thought of it. I thought I’d throw it out to you, my friends, to see what you think, too.

Our group is sort of unique. There are a core of about 5-6 guys currently that are pretty much gonna show up every time.

There are another 5-6 guys that are going to show up regularly.

There are another 10-12 guys that might show up at anytime.

We’ve probably had about 70-90 guys experience our group over the years, all for varied reasons and amounts of time.

And we have first time guests come and check us out quite regularly. Some stick, some don’t.

The real unique quality about this group is the commitment to be very honest. To dig deep and go beneath the “surfacy” stuff that we present to the rest of the world. To co-create some space where vulnerable confession is regular and loving confrontation is acceptable.

It is all centered around the idea that Christ claims to have the best possible life available to man. So ultimately, we are checking out his life, teachings, mission, and priorities and looking to apply them to our own lives and see if it is true.

Everyone leads in the basement. It is self-leadership. We don’t send out reminder emails and you may or may not get a call if you miss. The basement is always there, 8:30pm every Tuesday, for those who are searching deeply, looking to connect with a few other guys who are too, and have agreed to go through the search together.

Different guys take the hot seat each week and have “the floor”. When you have the floor, there are two rules.

  1. Bring it. -We are not here to talk about the weather or sports or superficial religious subjects…what you bring needs to be raw and real, courageous and probing. As long as it is that, you get to have us do whatever you want.)
  2. No monologuing. – You need to bring it in a way that invites everyone to participate. The sky is the limit when you have the floor…share a relevant topic, ask a probing question, bring up a theological discussion, share a confession, ask for advice, invite group prayer…anything…except monologue. Everyone there is there to participate in what is being created (if not, they can just go sit in another pew at a church).

The only exception to rule #2 is your first time to take the hot seat. This is when you “tell your story.” Yes, the whole, gory, God-honest thing. We always challenge the person about to tell us their story to go all the way with it. To “make us your friends”.

Everyone you’ll meet there has done it. It gives us context for each other’s lives and everyone who does it finds it quite liberating and friendship building.

Whatyathink?

So, my blog-reading friends. What do you think?

Jury Duty

7 April 2011

I had an experience during jury duty this past Monday.

I was assigned to a panel, and along with about 35 others, went into the courtroom to undergo the questioning of each lawyer for jury selection (which is actually jury de-selection, since they are deciding who they don’t want serving).

I was way back on the 3rd row, so I went through about 2 hours of questioning without having to speak. But then the defense attorney asked a general question: “Do any of you know any law enforcement officers?” I was among those who raised their hands. His eyes landed on me first, I guess, and he says, “Okay, Mr. Mashburn. And you are Church of Christ preacher, right?”

Why was my knee-jerk reaction to feel like I had just been busted for something bad? Why was I feeling some emotional mixture of fear and defensiveness?

Now outwardly, I handled this just fine. I think I just calmly said, “Yes, sir, I am”.

Inwardly, however, I wanted to say, “Yes, but the Church of Christ I serve with is not what some of you might be thinking! And I am probably not like the Church of Christ minister that is popping into your head right now! And I do not believe or preach or focus on what some of you might have experienced from some of the Church of Christ people in your life!”

Outwardly, this whole thing just lasted a few seconds.

But inwardly, I had left the courtroom, trying to examine what this reaction in me was, where it has come from, if it is necessary or useful.

Pause.

Certainly, part of this has to do with me and my stuff. It has to do with me being confident about who and Whose I am, needing nothing (properly understood) from any man, and thereby settling into a sort of invulnerability against the judgments of people. This is all absolutely true and has been and continues to be my work.

But I also know that there is another part of this. A historical part based in reality. A part that has to do with a “Christian religion” replacing relationship with Christ, an “institutionalized legalism” replacing Christlike life, and “Church practices” replacing Church family. Yes, indeed, part of this has to do with the Church of Christ and her stuff.

So, back in the courtroom: I wasn’t the only one who reacted to the lawyer’s “outing” of me. Not everyone, but many in the courtroom (some with an urgent snap of the head and others nonchalantly acting as if they just happened to be looking in my direction anyway) turned their heads to get a look at me once the pronouncement was made.

Like they all wanted to know…what does one of those look like?

I can’t be sure what was going on in them, of course. Not everyone (maybe anyone) in that room was having a negative reaction to the news. But, because of far too many experiences, I am sensitive the fact that some may have.

Now, part of my sensitivity was from the lawyer identifying me as a “minister.” That title can carry it’s own generic baggage for some people these days. Maybe I get linked with the crazy guy in Florida who thinks burning a Koran is an effective way to represent Christ. Maybe I get associated with a Catholic priest who’s vow of celibacy was broken in the some of the worst ways. Maybe I get connected to some questionable TV evangelist.

But the major part of my defensiveness was the lawyer indentifying me with the Church of Christ.

  • Was that scowling woman going back to the time her Church of Christ minister or elder told her she could not leave her physically abusive husband unless he committed adultery?
  • Was that guy’s friendly smile because he’s a “Church of Christer” just glad to have a “brother” from the “Lord’s church” on the panel with him?
  • Were any of these folks Baptists, Pentecostals, or Catholics remembering how condemned they felt by zealous Church of Christers in the past for their “flawed beliefs” about baptism, prayers, the raising of hands, or the use of musical instruments in worship services?

I wish this was all in the far distant past, and pray that before too long it will be, but I know an older woman right here in my town who told me that her husband had stopped attending church due to physical limitations as she kept going faithfully. One Sunday, she approached an elder in their Church of Christ and asked if he would come over sometime and read the Bible to her husband (“Oh, how he loves that,” she told me). This elder angrily said that they at the church don’t owe her husband a thing since he didn’t bother to attend their church services.

Seriously?

I wonder if someone like her was in that jury pool? We were there to potentially judge some evidence and declare someone guilty or not guilty based on that evidence about drug possession. All of a sudden, with just a “title” thrown out there without some disclaimers, I felt like this jury was out on me and the group that I am a part of.

Hear me…I’m beyond grateful that I am a part of a Church of Christ family that humbly works to live up to the name on our building outside, trying to be a church that is actually “of Christ”. This stellar group of people is journeying together, transforming more and more into Christ’s image, imitating (by God’s grace) Christ’s heart, character, mission, and priorities.

I’m proud to be a minister at the Southwest Church of Christ.

But am I right to be sensitive about this? Is this concern outdated in your circle of influence? In your own heart?

Bell, Piper, and How to Read Your Bible

7 March 2011

You diligently study the scriptures. You should be diligently studying me.” – Jesus Christ (my interpretation of John 5:39-40)

 

I’m back to a subject that is important if Christianity is to survive as a power within the human race.

It is the subject of how to read the Bible.

Is there a Bad Way to Read the Bible?

Sure there is. Different approaches result in different conclusions. Many of which the Bible wasn’t written to provide.

For example, if you approach the Bible with the question, “How do you build a boat?” you might stumble upon God’s directions to Noah in Genesis 6 on how he was to build the Ark. You then might conclude that this is the “Biblical” way to build a boat, and to do so in any other way is not “Biblical,” and therefore should be avoided (at least), and made into a condition of salvation (at worst). Silly, I know, but stick with me here…

Imagine a good hearted Christian woman, quite disturbed, telling her preacher that “we just don’t ever hear sermons about how to build boats.” When asked why she desires to hear that preached, she responds with “because the Bible tells us how to build a boat. We need to follow the Bible.”

The question here is not “Does the Bible have anything to say about how to build a boat?” It does. Genesis 6. The question here is “Was the Bible written to teach us how to build boats?” It wasn’t. The lesson? Don’t approach the Bible in a way the Bible hasn’t told you to. You’ll end up following ideas that are “in the Bible” (ie: Biblical) that have nothing to do with Jesus Christ (who saves you).

This understanding would save many, many debates and avoid many, many divisions between Christians over so many “Biblical” issues. 

Here’s a more realistic, less silly example: If you approach the Bible with the question “How do you sing songs in a public worship service?” you might stumble upon King David’s appointment of people to use different sorts of instruments to accompany the “sacred song” (1 Chronicles 15-16:42). A few pages over, you might take note that these are called “the Lord’s instruments,” used specifically for “praising the Lord” (2 Chronicles 7:6). You then might run into all the Psalms that specifically instruct the use of those instruments alongside them (Psalm 4, 6, 54, 55, 61, 67, 76), and feel like you are starting to get a pretty good “Biblical” picture of how you should sing songs in public worship. You might then read the words of Paul to the Colossians (3:16), telling them to continue singing those psalms of David, assuming that he’s instructing them to do so in the way David wrote and intended them. Seal it up with the teaching that this kind of instrumental accompaniment will continue in Heaven (Rev 15:2-4), and you might feel confident concluding that the “Biblical” way to sing songs in a public worship service is with “the Lord’s” musical instruments to accompany the “sacred song”.

So imagine a good hearted Christian man in his minister’s office, telling him that “we just don’t ever hear about how we should worship with musical instruments.” When asked why he desires that to be preached, he responds with “because the Bible tells us to worship with instruments. We need to follow the Bible.”

The question here is not “Does the Bible have anything to say about how songs are sung in public worship services?” The question here is “Was the Bible written to prescribe how we should sing songs in public worship services?”

A very current example, and perhaps even less silly than either of my first ones, is the cyber-debate going on between Rob Bell fans and John Piper fans (I happen to be both) concerning their alleged convictions about whether a few, most, or any people will go to Hell or not. Plenty of folks have written about this, so I won’t here, but generally I like these thoughts about the whole thing…if you were wondering.

As important and interesting (and potentially useful) a conversation as it is,  the Bible wasn’t written for us to judge and decide who is or who isn’t going to Hell. Approaching it in that way, looking for the answer to that question, leaves us confused at best, or holding our conclusions over others as a test of salvation (or worthiness of fellowship) at worst.

“Farewell, Rob Bell” is what John Piper was compelled to tweet when Rob concluded differently than he.

Farewell, Lutherans” is what the Catholic church “tweeted” when Luther posted his differences.

“Farewell, Independent Christian Church” is what Church of Christer’s  “tweeted” when they saw nothing wrong with accompanying sacred song with musical instruments.

“May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me,” is what Jesus prayed about us.

We are going to have doctrinal differences. Must they destroy our unity in Christ alone?

Farewell, Christlikeness.

“Farewell, Christlikeness” is what we all “tweet” when we think getting all (or some particular) Bible doctrine right matters in terms of our salvation.

Hear me: It is not the reading of the Bible that is problematic among Christians. It is what Christians read the Bible in order to get that has caused all the trouble.

My sweet daughter is 9. I’m already having to talk to her about boys (!) who are approaching her. The older she gets, the more I’m going to have to deal with it. You may not believe me, but I don’t have a problem with boys approaching my daughter. What I will be watching out for, and potentially having HUGE problems with, is what those boys are approaching my daughter in order to get from her.

In the same way, God has not problem with us approaching the Bible. But what we go to Bible in order to get from it…well, I think He has serious concerns.

Why? Because approaching the Bible in different ways extracts different sets of rules, different primary doctrines, and different guidelines, beliefs, and convictions…all from the very same Bible! This has resulted in embarrassing divisions among and between well intentioned Christians (throughout history, and most recently, between Bell and Piper), all of whom are equally armed with the authority of “being Biblical” in their position.

And worse than the separation it causes among Christians is the separation it causes between Christians and the world.

Many of the categories produced by well meaning, but uncalled-for, approaches to scripture are irrelevant to the actual well-being of the human heart, the healing of the human spirit, the guiding of the human life, the creating of loving relationships among  humankind, or “rightness” between them and God.

These flawed conclusions too often make Christianity look like a foolish set of stubborn beliefs, or adherence to some superficial religious sacraments or practices, or merely an intolerant and demanding conformity to a certain moral code. Trust me, the world is quick to notice that not only can Christians not agree on them (or even discuss them with grace in the context of safe and secure brotherhood in Christ), but they are irrelevant at best, useless & not worth their time at worst. 

So How Should We Approach the Bible?

So here I set forth, as clearly as I can, a way of reading the Bible that, at this point in my life, seems to be the only way to read it that brings the power of God that it claims to contain for real live human beings. It is the only way of reading the Bible that I see Jesus promoting and condoning himself (John 5:39-40). It is the only way of reading the Bible that actually makes it useful for the life of righteousness that Paul claimed in was useful for (1 Timothy 3:16)

Approach the Bible to find Jesus Christ.

Look for him. Fix your eyes on him. Fix your mind on him. Look for his attitude. Look for his heart. Look for his mission. Look for his priorities. Read for his way. Read for his truth. Read for his life. Follow him. Be clothed with him. Be buried with him. Be resurrected with him. Depend on him. Live in him. Be lived in by him. Imitate him. Become like him. Follow his example. Walk as he did. Be transformed into his image.

Approach the Bible to find him.

If you ever get done with all of that, which the Bible clearly calls all men to do unto life, then maybe you’ll have some time to figure out the sure fire answers to all of those lesser doctrines. Maybe then you’ll have time to get in a wad about whether or not your preacher preaches about them enough, or whether your brother is really your brother based on them, or whether knowing the absolute irrefutable truth about them would save and change the world any better than just a simple and faithful pursuit of and faith in the Person of Jesus Christ. 

A relationship with Jesus, according to Jesus, is the very definition of eternal life anyway (John 17:3). So why go to the Bible for anything but to grow in this “eternal life”? In other words, why go to the Bible for anything but to grow in your relationship with Jesus?

The Bible (and it’s doctrine) is not the point. The Bible (and it’s doctrine) is the pointer. And it points to Jesus Christ. According to the Bible, it is Christ and Christ alone that saves. According to the Bible, how you publicly worship, and what you believe about Heaven and Hell, and who might be “in” or “out” has about as much bearing on whether or not you are saved as how you build a boat.

What I love about both Bell and Piper (and most Christians, for that matter) is that they DO approach the Bible. And every single subject that can be explored and addressed by doing so, I downright enjoy it. But only insomuch as it helps me get to know Christ.

But when those subjects, and getting them right, become the end unto itself – and especially when some Christians starts acting like it matters in terms of my relationship (hear: “salvational”) status with God – I feel like Jesus Christ is, in light of the sacrifice he offered with blood, offended.

God help us. God be with us.

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