Category Archives: theology

old dog new tricks

I haven’t had an old dog for quite some time. In fact, both of the dogs in my house are two years of age or younger. Which often results in things being chewed that aren’t intended for chewing (I may be a little bitter as one of these items was my most frequently worn Red Sox hat this last week). But I want to take issue with that old adage today, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. While perhaps this may be true for dogs, it is oft applied to humans and I’m not sure that this is exactly the case. Case in point; I have been a sufferer of teenage acne for going on 28 years. I have taken various pills, lotions, creams, etc in pursuit of a clear complexion over those 28 years. But most recently I have found the simplest method is to actually just wash my face one more time before bed. Now most of you at this point are putting your palm to your forehead and saying duh, but for me this was a completely new habit. And yet I have seen better response to this in my later years than to anything else I have done throughout my entire time of eternal adolescence.

It got me thinking about something my pastor, Kevin Ulmet, recently tweeted. He said, “The holiness of God calls us to transformation not continuation. That is a message of hope and change that we must teach and live in these days.” We as people of God are called to transformation and not continuation. And yet continuation is so much easier. Albert Einstein is often credited with the expression, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” And that’s sometimes the way we behave in this Christian life. We keep living the way we always live and are surprised that people are not impacted by our witness. We keep the same routines and schedule and we wonder why we feel relatively the same in our relationship with God. What we come to realize is that continuation is simply that…continuation.

In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul has this to say about transformation, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” – Romans 12:2 The word for transformation in the Greek here is anakainōsis which is defined as renovation, something becoming completely new. And that’s what people of faith are ultimately about; becoming completely new. Even the faith habits that we establish early on in life are in need of continued renewal and growth and transformation. After all, I’m not anywhere near the same person I was when I was fourteen…save the teenage acne. So let us learn new tricks. Let us discipline ourselves with new habits. Let us be transformed in new ways so that we don’t continue with the same old same old.

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a sermon

Yesterday was a momentous event. After the first retirement of a Roman Catholic Pope in almost 600 years there was a new Pope elected by the college of cardinals. And Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio after election took the Papal name Francis I. Having been ordained as a Jesuit priest I do not think that this was at all a flippant decision. In Buenos Aires Bergoglio chose to live a simple life rather than the life afforded one of his position. He lived in an apartment rather than the archbishop’s palace, he gave up his chauffeured limousine in favor of taking the bus to work, and he even cooked his own meals. The name Francis for me instantly brings up the quote the Saint of Assisi was most famous for, “Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words.” I am not sure how Pope Francis will operate as the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church, but if his former lifestyle is any indication, then I think it will be a great time for the church.

It makes me even think a bit about how we operate in our daily lives as the church. We are fond of rhetoric in the church. In fact, one of my favorite things to do is to talk about Jesus and the church to anyone willing to listen. But I am not sure that is always what Jesus has intended for us. My chief example of this is the encounters that take place in Matthew 8. In Matthew chapters 5-7 we have recorded what is commonly referred to as ‘The Sermon on the Mount”. And without fail most people will tell you that this is the single greatest philosophical teaching in human history. So to simply refer to it as a sermon is a bit of an understatement, but it will serve our purposes for now. The part that amazes me is that immediately following this sermon is Christ’ action. Matthew 8:1-2 say this, “When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him.A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus finishes this amazing sermon and immediately gets to it. It is not enough for him to have said amazing things…he has to do amazing things. I am not even sure the miracle is even the focal point. Verse three in the text says, “Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.” He touched a man with leprosy. He defied religious and cultural laws for the sake of impacting the lives of those around him. He had just spoken about what life lived out should look like (Sermon on the Mount) and then he did it.

Like I said earlier, I am a fan of words. I love talking, debating and thinking about the church and Kingdom life. But maybe this is such a time as to quite my tongue and put the rest of me to action. Maybe a Pope choosing the name Francis could be a reminder to us all. I leave you with the opening lines of Edgar A Guest’s poem:

I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way…

May we find a way to be a living sermon today.


grace and peace

Undoubtedly if you have ever been a part of a Stuck in the Middle gathering, or any of our previous youth positions in other churches, you have heard the three words that make up this post. In fact, I recently had the joy of getting to hang with some former students and I asked them, “What three word phrase would you always hear whenever we got together?” And almost in unison they replied, “Grace and Peace”. You see, in every youth gathering/service we had together we would have a time of passing the peace. But instead of uttering the liturgical phrase “The Peace of Christ to You” we pound fists with our neighbor as we utter “Grace and Peace”. And I couldn’t be more excited to have any other words associated with our ministry. But for me the real joy is when the students begin to understand why those words are integral. The significance of this phrase isn’t even probably found where you think it might be.

For better or worse our theology and practices in the modern church in America are probably shaped more by the writings of Paul than by any other writings in scripture. In fact, sometimes I see the main difference between the Modern church vs the Postmodern church is that the former is more Pauline in it’s theological sway while the latter tends to be more Christological. And a lot of this shaping through Pauline doctrine has been amazing. We understand church discipline, organization and morality better through his eyes. We are able to wrestle with justification, atonement and sanctification because of the texts given to us from his letters. However sometimes Paul has been used to oppress and deride members of society; even inside the walls of the church. His writing to Philemon regarding the fair treatment of a slave may have been a crutch for slavery and fodder against the abolitionist movement. His writings in Timothy have led to the oppression and subjugation of women both inside and outside the church walls. And I think the problem isn’t necessarily just a cultural interpretive issue…I think the problem is that we don’t read Paul sequentially.

In every one of Paul’s letters, before he gets into any issues with the local churches or leaders, before he even begins to weigh any theological discussion, we find some variation of the following phrase, “Grace and Peace”*. It was so important for Paul to lay the proper foundation with these churches that it is mentioned in every epistle he wrote! Now think about this with me…before Paul uttered one word of correction, before he gave one jot or tittle of instruction he ushered in Grace and Peace into the lives of his listeners.

What a concept! What would the reputation of the Church in the world look like today if we simply followed that model? What would we look like if before we entered into political arenas or workplace discussions we simply offered Grace freely (for truly that is really the only display of Grace) to those with whom we are about to engage? How effective would we be if in every situation we encounter we were actively seeking to build/make peace (not keep it, there is a significant difference) in creative and non-violent methods? Maybe then we might be getting persecuted and ridiculed for the right reasons instead of  accusations of being judgmental and hypocritical. Maybe then people might scoff at us because we are trying to make a difference by offering Grace and Peace in a world that really understands neither…or maybe we will find ourselves on a cross. But isn’t that where this all begins anyway?

* Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:3, 2 Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:3, Ephesians 1:2, Philippians 1:2, Colossians 1:2, 1Thessalonians 1:1, 2Thessalonians 1:2, 1 Timothy 1:2, 2 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:4, Philemon1:3


hard things

One of my favorite shows on TV right now has to be Parks and Recreation. Not necessarily because of the content, but because of the exaggerated characters it brings together. Andy Dwyer is probably the best representation of the exaggeration. He is basically a seven-year old in an adult body. In an episode featuring Andy helping the Parks and Rec department out with an Opossum problem the following exchange takes place:                                                                                                                                  Andy: When you’re in a situation, you don’t have time to think. So I thought to myself, “Don’t think, Andy. Act.”
Tom: So you weren’t thinking.
Andy: Not at all. I cannot emphasize enough how little I was thinking.                                                                                                                                                                  It’s quotes like this that typify his character and just make him a joy to watch. It really is like watching a kid in adult shoes who refuses to engage society with any sense of discernment or intelligibility. The scary revelation that I come to through the character of Andy Dwyer is that all to often this can even describe those of us who claim to belong to the Way.

I guess what I am trying to say is this. There are a lot of things about our faith and doctrine that are hard to understand, much less communicate to others. But does that mean we should give up and just talk without giving thought to them? Does this mean that we don’t wrestle with concepts like The Trinity, The fully divine/mortal revelation of Christ, the Atonement, free will, etc.? By no means. In fact, if we don’t wrestle with these things then how do we expect to be able to bring others into a full understanding of who Christ is and the forgiveness offered through the cross. And all the more, if this wrestling with doctrinal issues does not guide our speech/breaking of the Word before others, then are we being faithful to the Church?

1 Timothy 4:14-16 reads, “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” By watching our doctrine we save our hearers? If this is something we truly believe then we are accountable for the words we speak especially in regards to issues that communicate beliefs essential to who we are as Christ followers. This is especially true for those who stand in the pulpit (present company included) and for those who have been ordained in whatever tradition they belong to (present company also included :)).

And so what do I propose? Study to show yourself approved. We have been given two millennium of heritage and tradition handed down to us by some of the greatest minds ever who coincidentally enough belonged to the Church. Names like Clement, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Zwingli, Luther, Arminius and Wesley. These are all names we should at least be somewhat familiar with. Here are men who made it their lives’ work to wrestle with issues essential to our identity and can even help us struggle with them today.

So I guess it comes down to whether or not we choose to think about such things or not. But one way or another, eventually we will all be accountable for these hard things and how we treated them.


God-talk

For those of you who have come to know me a little more through this blog, you know that I love theology. If you ever want to corner me and have my undivided attention for hours all you have to do is throw out buzz words like trinity or ekklesia and I am in. I am also one of those blessed individuals who gets to think and talk about theology for a living. I am living a dream. (Sometimes I just wish that dream was located on Maui instead of in Flint, MI, but that is another matter entirely). But as one who has dedicated his life to the church I always have to ask the question, how important is theology? And not just how important is theology, but how important is good theology?

We all at some time or another have heard the infamous words “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Which as we all know works if you are five, but otherwise is a complete lie. Words are the most powerful thing on the planet. They destroy relationships, dehumanize entire races and even start wars. So when we start talking about theology (from the Greek theos = God, logia = words), then words all of a sudden do matter. I mean these are ultimately the words that we use to define God in our scope and language. These are the words that not only define God for us personally, but also define God for those upon whom we have influence. In other words, the words we use to speak about God, ultimately define for others the God in whom we place our faith.

All of a sudden it isn’t just semantics. The words and phrases that we use when we speak about God must ultimately be measured and weighed in such a way that they are true to His nature and revelation. His revelation comes to us by way of Scripture, tradition and personal experience. His nature is most closely revealed through the person of Jesus Christ and the charitable and gracious works of His followers. If our God-talk is not informed by this methodology, then maybe we need to be careful about who we talk to about God. I am not saying that you need to be a ordained theologian to talk about God, but you need to care about Theology.

And caring about Theology doesn’t mean you have to be a student of Karl Barth or Jurgen Moltmann (although I would be really impressed) but rather be a student of the word and your church’s doctrine. Memorize the creeds and know why you believe them. In this manner you will be able to answer in the nature described in I Peter 3:15-16, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”

To further define this conversation, the “gentleness and respect” in I Peter allows one to be bold enough to say that you don’t have all the answers, but that you are willing to enter into the conversation…to continue the God-talk.


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