Conversations vs. Controversies

In my previous post, I wrote about the Canon with the Canon. If you haven’t read that post, read it before you jump into this one.

Ok, so you’ve read it, right? Cuz I’m going to move forward with that assumption. So, let’s go.

Just a few minutes ago, I read an article that looked at how the Christian Church, the Stone-Campbell tradition I am a part of, handles questions of what matters most. And the author made the point that, in the Church, we often handle difficult issues with one of two extremes: 1) we avoid conversation, or 2) we treat what should be conversations as controversies. In other words, we take what is non-essential, and we make it essential. And we then refuse to talk about it, or we choose to fight about it.

All of this reflects our choice of a Canon within the Canon. And if my CwtC is different than your CwtC, then we are likely to find ourselves in serious disagreement — and maybe even disunity.

One blog post won’t solve what 2000 years hasn’t been able to overcome. In fact, if the Church is any indication, our tendency is to move, not toward unity, but away from it. Tragic, yes. Inevitable, no. But reality nonetheless.

But I can’t help but wonder: what if we truly read all of scripture through a common lens? What if we refused to let non-essentials divide us — even when they infringe upon tightly-held traditions?

In the past week, I’ve seen this in at least three ways.

First: I preached at a church this past Sunday that has two different services. The first included only hymns, accompanied only by a keyboard, and led by a male minister. The second included only choruses, where the loudest instrument was definitely the electric guitar, and where the service was led by a lay female member of the church. After the 2nd service, the minister of that church told me that there’s an older guy who has been attending the louder and more contemporary service. It’s not my style, the man says, but he does it to worship with someone who does attend that service. In other words, whether he realizes it or not, he is choosing Ephesians 4.1-6 as a part of his CwtC. (By the way: In this post, I’m going to reference a number of scriptures. I’m not going to take the time to link each one. I figure you can do that for passages you don’t know. Go to biblegateway.com or biblehub.com. Or, you could go old school and pull out your Bible.)

Second example: a couple of days ago, I had lunch with 3 ministers. I have known two of them for years, and they are from the same church tradition as I am. The third I barely know, and is a Baptist. These 3 guys meet together every Tuesday for lunch, and then to work on their Sunday messages. As we talked, one of the Christian Church guys joked that his Baptist friend has to filter all of their studying through his Calvinist filter. That’s ok, he went on to describe. I do the same thing in reverse when it comes from him. All of this was shared with humor and the collegiality that comes from guys who, regardless of their views on TULIP, recognize that their view on the Rose of Sharon matters more. So, while they may have differing interpretations of John 6.44, all 3 of them stand firmly on John 14.6.

Third example: last night I was working for a friend who has a floor-demolition business. We were working overnight at a Target, and after we finished the job, we headed to a Waffle House for a 1:30am snack. On the way, one of the guys in the truck asked: Where did Cain get his wife? In my answer, I tried to focus on the essentials: The point of the Adam & Eve story, along with the Cain & Abel, isn’t to help us identify Mrs. Cain. Instead, the essential elements of those stories are that Adam & Eve didn’t love and obey God, and Cain didn’t take care of his brother — and we have been having the same problem ever since. Simply put, the point of Adam & Eve and their children is to describe the human condition: our fractured relationship with God, and with each other.

Which makes Matthew 22.34-40 such an essential passage. When Jesus is asked what the most important commandment is, he answers by pointing us to a response that is the opposite of, and undoes, the sin of the first family. And this tells me that Matthew 22.34-40 is a CwtC. In fact, isn’t that what Jesus is doing? Isn’t he answering the question by giving his own CwtC?

Why can’t we stand firmly where Jesus stood? Why can’t we all agree that Matthew 22.34-40 is a CwtC. And for that matter, Romans 3.23-24. And 1 Corinthians 15.3-4. And Galatians 3.28. And Philippians 2.12-13. And Colossians 3.17. And Hebrews 4.14-16. And 1 John 4.7.

And these CwtCs are prefigured, just as Jesus said, in Leviticus 19.18. At the same time, He remembers what He made us from (Psalm 103.14). But even so, our calling is to rise above our “dustiness” — as Micah 6.8 so clearly calls us to do.

I have no doubt that, until Jesus returns, the Church will have controversies where conversations should instead be had. I also understand that deciding what is essential is not so simple, and may never be so. But perhaps a good start can be had if we choose to plant our flag on essential passages — ones that point us with simple clarity to God’s love for us, and our responding love for God, and for every single person in our lives.

On Why I Left Church Leadership; and Why It Might Be a Good Thing

Sunday was my final day as the primary leader at my church. I stepped aside from that role, believing it was time for the church and for me to branch out in new directions.

One of the reasons I stepped down was because of all the things a church measures that are hard to measure up to (like: attendance, budget, baptisms, current mood, decision-making, evangelistic fervor). And that’s just A through E.

Now, it’s not that those aren’t important things; it’s just that no church ever perfectly matches up its calling with its reality. All churches have weak spots, blind spots, even dead spots. It’s not that this is ideal, or even ok. It’s just that, as long as the Church is made up of people, it will always be the fragile and fumbling Bride of Christ.

I am amazed how, when Paul writes letters to the churches he knows, he, almost without fail, calls them: saints, beloved, faithful brothers & sisters. The same people he chastises for getting drunk at communion (1 Corinthians 11.21), he calls saints (1 Cor 1.2). The same people who take each other to court with letters of complaint (1 Cor 6.4), Paul calls “a letter from Christ” (2 Cor 3.2).

What to make of this? Certainly, Paul is very concerned with how the church is Corinth is living. But he also is very convinced of the power and the purpose of that church. The power of any church isn’t in its systems, its plans, or (and this just amazes me) in the degree to which the church has it “together.” Instead, the power of the church is found in the One who calls us saints. As Paul also writes to the Corinthians: It is Jesus Christ “who will sustain you to the end,” for “God is faithful…” (1 Cor 1.8-9).

What encouragement! What hope! In times of strong leadership, mediocre leadership, or weak leadership, God is still the guide. It’s the power of Jesus that propels. It’s the leading of the Spirit that produces unity and mission.

So, in my final sermon at Fern Creek Christian, I closed by challenging the church to remember who they are. And I said: How cool would it be if, when the new leader begins, he looks around, and this is what he sees:

  • kids ministry humming along, because there are plenty of people who love kids without a paycheck;
  • middle school and high school students aren’t simply a part of the church, over in the corner somewhere; they are the church, right now;
  • life groups that are serious about gathering, but not just to eat and talk; but to be changed, and to take that change into the world;
  • a church that believes in strong, healthy, biblical marriages; but one that also values single folks, empowering them to step up, lead, and use their gifts.

At the same time, I hope he discovers a church:

  • that primarily speaks English; but also includes, as full brothers and sisters, those whose first language is Spanish;
  • that is mostly white, but is striving to truly be a church where people of all colors are welcomed and empowered;
  • where some come dressed in their Sunday snazziest, and others in their Sunday simplest;
  • where some drive up in a shiny new Ford, while others hitch a ride on a TARC bus.

And I think it would be both wonderful and biblical for the new leader to look around, and see a church:

  • where it’s not just men who are fully unleashed to use their gifts, but women, too;
  • less interested in planning a impactful Sunday morning, and more interested in impacting people’s lives Monday through Saturday;
  • that loves and values folks who prefer things to be more traditional; but those same folks are among some of the first to ask him: How can you help us reach the next generation?

In other words, I dream of a church that invites a new leader to step in and lead, finding that the church isn’t dependent on him — or any other person, for that matter; a church not waiting around for someone to tell them what to do; but a church, with all their flaws, failures, and foibles, simply being the church. Struggling saints, striving for godliness — but trusting that God’s power isn’t limited by their limitations. I think that’s a church that can make a difference. At least, that’s what Paul seemed to think. And with that thinking, he helped spark a revolution — a revolution that, by the grace of God, continues today.

How to Find Yourself: thoughts about marriage that are about more than marriage

This past weekend, I presided at a wedding. As always, the ceremony is a time of joy and celebration. The bride and groom look their best, and everything that happens point to one thing: happiness and smiles.

So, when I stand before the just-about-to-be-married couple, speaking to them (and to those who are gathered), I want to say nice, happy things. I want to add to the festive spirit. And I do.

But I also want to say: Do you really know what you’re doing? Are you really ready for this? Because your vows are real. This is the real deal. And marriage will be one of the most difficult things you ever do.

Now, that’s not what I say. At least not in so many words. But I do say this:

We live in a world that can be cynical about marriage. There are those who doubt that a couple can spend a lifetime of love together. That instead of finding freedom in marriage, it ends up being a shackle.

As someone once sarcastically said, “Marriage is a wonderful institution. But who would want to live in an institution?”

But that’s not how the Bible sees it. In fact, from the very beginning, God makes man, and then provides man a helper; an equal, a partner for the journey. For life – with all its challenges and disappointments, with all of its joys and pleasures – is meant to be shared. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The days your heart aches and the days your heart skips a beat. The day you get a promotion, AND the day you lose your job.

And the way to grow stronger through Whatever comes your way – is by firmly holding onto each other.

In other words, marriage is hard. In part, because life is hard. And there’s a reason that in our marriage vows, we don’t say: “I do, if I feel like it,” or “I do, as long as it works for me,” or, “I do, as long as it’s not too difficult.” That’s not how marriage works. That’s not how life works. The way through the difficult times is to walk through those difficult times together.

I recently read a long article, published by the New York Times, that talked with couples who are practicing what is called “open marriage.” If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Open marriage is where a couple “opens” their marriage to other intimate relationships, to other lovers. And the article is full of people giving reasons why this makes things better, at least in their minds.

While most of us can come up with a number of reasons why open marriage doesn’t work and doesn’t make sense, perhaps it’s a perfect sign of our times — where so many believe that life is found, not in our commitments, but in our freedoms. That is to say: real life is found by always keeping our options open.

The preacher and writer John Ortberg contends that so many who live for so much freedom end up coming to the end of their lives, and they can’t remember what they did with all the money they were free to make and spend. They can’t remember what they did with all that time they were so busy protecting. They can’t remember what happened to all those relationships that they were so free to exit. In the end, by keeping their options open, and by not fully committing to anything, they end up with a life committed to nothing.

Then Ortberg makes this vital point: It’s not in our freedom, but in our commitments, that we find ourselves.

What an absolutely counter-cultural argument, one that is sure to mystify many. But what a vital truth that is spot on. In a world where so many run from commitment — whether it’s in marriage, or parenting, or a job, or church, or just settling in one place to be a blessing to those around us — it’s really true: real life is found, not in what we keep open, but what we hold onto. In the end, we are defined, we are shaped, we become: not by what we run from, but what we commit to.