April 24, 2018

Freedom from the family for the family

There’s a nice article at Christianity Today challenging the prevalent, ongoing “focus on the family” mentality of the American church. In it, Rebecca McLaughlin gives five reasons “Why I Don’t Sit with My Husband at Church” on Sunday mornings.

There’s one big reason: McLaughlin believes that congregations must be more open to showing hospitality to strangers who visit or to ministering to others in the congregation who might have needs. This may mean separating from our spouses or children while at church in order to have the freedom to serve others.

Here are her five reasons under that umbrella:

Outsiders should not be outsiders.

Every Sunday, my husband and I walk into church and see someone new sitting alone. If possible, we go and sit with them. If there are two people, we divide. It’s often awkward and uncomfortable but nonetheless worth it. Why? Because the gospel is a story of juxtaposition in community: Jesus sat with a Samaritan woman and asked her for a drink. Phillip got into the chariot with an Ethiopian eunuch. The early church ate together.

Our Sunday mornings do not require “having it together,” but they do require being together. Newcomers need us and we need them.

Family is more than immediate family.

…the Christian family is not a closed unit but rather part of a larger ecosystem. Community starts now.

Although being a healthy family sometimes requires drawing boundaries, we must be careful how we operate in community. If we close off in biological pods every Sunday, we leave out singles, newcomers, and others. If we open up, we experience a gospel gift—the body of Christ in all its fullness.

Your spouse is too much like you.

If our churches are in the messy gospel business of fostering family across differences, then it makes sense to sit with others unlike us.

McLaughlin specifically mentions sitting with people of other races and cultural backgrounds, as well as joining people from various socioeconomic situations.

Your marriage isn’t only for your benefit.

Marriage is a gift that we steward not just for ourselves and our children but also for the church. People in healthy marriages are outward-looking, spurring [others] on to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24).

We all need disillusionment with church.

Rebecca McLaughlin ends her article by reminding us that the church family itself is a community of the broken, who need each other to be available for mutual edification.

My hope is that, in the midst of our disillusionment with church, all of us—marrieds, singles, and kids—will grow in our sacrificial love for each other as we reach across our differences.

• • •

This piece resonates strongly with me.

Gail and I have always been partners in ministry, finding ways of reaching out to others when the church has gathered. We always viewed our relationship with each other and our children as part of a bigger web of relationships in which we were called to serve. We’ve depended on each other to allow the other a measure of independence so that we might be free to be available to those in need.

Even now, when we are no longer a pastoral couple in parish ministry, we actually attend different churches so that each of us can use our gifts in ministry. We attend and serve together when we’re able, but even then, it is not unusual that we find ourselves separately seeking out people who may need companionship or conversation.

And… I actually don’t think this is all that extraordinary in church communities. But it’s not the standard rhetoric, and I’m grateful that Rebecca McLaughlin had the courage to challenge us to see the bigger family perspective.

Monday with Michael Spencer: You Need to Get Rid of Some of Your Theology

Originally posted in 2009

Some of you won’t like what I’m about to say, but trust me, I’m not shooting at you. I’m not shooting at anyone. I’m trying to be pastoral, if there’s any hope that I have any pastoral instincts left.

Here’s the word: Some of us need to let go of some of our theology.

***bottle flies through air***

No, seriously. Some of us need to get to the trash can and empty out some of what’s in the theology file.

***tomato in flight***

Some of you people have got some seriously bad theology, and it’s stinkin’ up your life.

***pitchforks and torches sighted***

I’m telling you this for your own good. Some- not all- but some of what you’re holding on to so tenaciously is messing you up. It may be messing up your life, the lives of others and its going to spread to your children and those you minister to.

***angry voices***

Looks like I better get this said before the rocks start flying.

I believe what Christians believe. It’s what my life is founded on.

My Christian faith is like a map. It tells me where I am, who I am, where I’ve been, where I’m going and what it’s all about.

But I don’t believe everything Christians teach. I don’t believe everything I used to believe. Maybe it’s my own critical, skeptical nature. Maybe it’s the “sola scriptura” Protestant in me. Maybe it’s living awhile and drawing some conclusions. Maybe it’s learning something about what matters.

Maybe it’s the Holy Spirit.

Or maybe, as some of you will conclude, I’m some kind of post modern jellyfish who quits the team when things get tough. One of those post-evangelical emerging liberals who prefers a big hug to a good systematic theology lecture.

I don’t understand our loyalty to things that make God so unlike the one who revealed God on earth. Why we take on whole planks of Christianity that Jesus wouldn’t endorse or recognize.

Personal reference. When I discovered that God wasn’t going to stop something that I believed with all my heart and mind he had to stop, I was really pulled up short. My “map” was well worn with 30+ years of telling who I was and what God was supposed to do for me.

And now, I was discovering that my map was flawed. I’d believed it, and I had a choice. I could deny what was happening around me, in me and in others.

Or I could throw out some theology.

That meant admitting some of my teachers were wrong. Or at the least, didn’t know all there was to know.

It meant that some of what I was sure God had showed to me wasn’t God at all. It was me, or someone else.

I was wrong. My theology was wrong. My collection of Bible verses was wrong.

I hadn’t quite arrived. I didn’t have all the answers.

Part of my misery in the situation I was facing was my collection of theology.

There’s a moment when you realize things aren’t as certain as you thought they were. It’s a scary moment, and you want to blame someone. This collection of verses, statements and opinions was supposed to keep this from happening. The right theology was supposed to keep the sky from falling; it was supposed to keep the trap doors from opening up under my feet.

It makes more than a few people angry to hear that following Jesus is less like math and more like white water rafting. It’s less like writing down the right answers to a test and more like trusting yourself into the hands of a doctor. It’s less like standing on concrete and more like bungee jumping.

It’s less like what you think it is and lot more like something you never thought about.

Some of you have been beating your head against the wall of your bad theology for years. You’ve beaten your head against that wall until you aren’t a very pleasant person to be around. You’ve made yourself and some other people miserable. You’ve been like the Pharisees: you gave others the burden you’d chosen to carry and more. You’ve taken your misery and made others more miserable.

You’ve blamed others. You’ve silently accused God. You’ve sat there, arrogantly, insisting that you were right no matter what was happening. You’ve sought out arguments to assure yourself that you were right.

But the whole time, there was the trash, and some of that trash was theology that needed to go.

I’ve thrown out some of my theology, and I haven’t replaced it all. As much as I would like to know the answer to some questions, I’ve concluded I’m not going to know the answer to them all. I’ve concluded that lots of the theology I’ve been exposed to and taught falls considerably far shorter of perfection than I ever imagined. Some of it hasn’t served anyone very well. Some of it was nothing more than my way of jumping on a passing bandwagon.

The other day, someone who knew a bit about me wrote me to question why I didn’t believe in “limited atonement.” He wanted my verses and my theology. He wanted me to debate, and if he won, to adopt his theology.

I couldn’t explain myself very well to this questioner. My reasons aren’t all about verses. They are about who God is; who I believe God shows himself to be in Jesus. It’s biblical, but it’s also existential. It’s about the shape and flavor of truth, not about who wins the debate.

I can’t bend my faith into the shape of a “limited atonement” Jesus. And I can’t explain that. I only know that I needed to throw that away, because it was shaping me and my world in a way that was taking me away from Jesus.

I don’t expect anyone to understand. It’s inside of me that, ultimately, his song has to ring true. If you can’t hear it, that doesn’t mean I don’t. Having everyone else tell me all about the music was taking away my desire to sing. And I am here to sing, not study music.

I’m pretty sure my questioner wrote me off because I wouldn’t sign up. That’s OK. I respect him, but here me clearly: I don’t need my theology — my opinion of my theology especially — to be that important. It’s unhealthy.

I believe a lot of things. I could teach through a course on theology without any problems. But the difference between myself now and myself in the past is that much of that theology is less essential than it used to be. It does not equal God and I won’t speak as if it does. I won’t pretend that my own thoughts about God are the place I ought to stop and announce what God is always thinking and doing.

Hopefully, it’s going to be a lot easier to have a theological housecleaning. In the future, I don’t plan to fall for the flattery that I’ve never changed my mind or said “I don’t know.”

I know. That’s me. The way too emotional, way too flexible, over-reacting Internet Monk. Baptist one day. Calvinist the next. Catholic tomorrow. Talking about being “Jesus shaped,” whatever that means.

And that’s my trash can in the corner, and what you’re smelling is what I finally threw out.

It was long overdue.

By the way, guess what? I’m still here, believing. Following Jesus, loving Jesus, wanting more of Jesus than ever before.

I don’t recommend my path be your path. I only ask if you’ve opened yourself to the possibility that a spiritual renovation in your life can’t keep all the old junk. Yes, you may upset someone or some important, self-validating group. You may, for a moment, wonder if you know who you are and where you are. It may frighten you to consider that Brother so and so or a sincere family member were wrong.

You may not be excited to discover that all that accumulated trash does not equal God.

I hope that soon you are excited. I am sad to see and hear some of you involved with a God that increasingly holds you hostage in a theological extortion scheme.

That’s not the God who came to us in Jesus. It’s not.

There’s more. He is more. Your journey is more.

Sundays in Easter: The Very Good Gospel (3)

Spring Green. Photo by David Cornwell

Sin is not about the personal imperfection of the self. Rather, sin is any act that breaks any of the relationships God declared very good in the beginning.

• Lisa Sharon Harper

• • •

On Sundays in Easter, we are hearing from Lisa Sharon Harper about The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right. Her book is about the fullness of the good news that Jesus lived, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven to give us. Harper tells us that this good news is about shalom, the opposite of our often “thin” understanding of the gospel.

Chapter three has Lisa Harper exploring Genesis 2, a more intimate look at God’s good creation and the calling of humans to live in relationship with each other and the abundant creation in which he placed them.

On our most basic level, we were created for relationship with God, within community, with the rest of creation, and between genders. And on a deeper level, all human relationships depend on one central relationship: humanity’s relationship with God. After all, our life breath— life itself— was given by God. The community of the rest of creation was given by God. And, ultimately, the extravagant gift of bonded human companionship was the gift of God. What human fulfillment can there be apart from God?

The test that Adam and Eve faced was a test of their loving relationship with God. As Harper notes, two of the most fundamental characteristics of an adult love relationship are trust and choice. The couple in the garden was presented with an opportunity to trust God’s word, even when it involved a prohibition of something enticing, and to choose to act on that trust by not eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

At root the question they faced was “Do I love God?” This question is at the heart of all our relationships, and how we exercise trust and choice in the context of those relationships determines whether or not they advance shalom and strengthen the web of relationships in which we live.

Genesis 1 and 2 offer clear pictures of the Kingdom of God, showing what it looks like and what it requires of its citizens. God created us in an interconnected web of overwhelmingly good relationships, and love is the powerful tie that binds us together. The choices we make regarding how we gain peace reveal whether or not we trust God and choose God’s ways to peace and fulfillment. To choose the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil— which results in greed, consumption, exploitation, nationalism, misogyny, and other-ism— is to become an enemy of God’s purposes in our world.

However, we all know what happened…

Love would have led the man and woman to ask God about the tree before eating from it. Love would have led them to trust God’s heart and intentions. But they didn’t love God with their actions, and down went the interconnected web of relationships that God had created. The relationships were ripped apart, separated by sin.

Lisa Harper observes that, in the biblical story, it is only thirteen chapters from “very good” to nations at war.

At root, this anti-shalom situation springs from the failure to love through trusting and choosing to honor love by our actions.

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