...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness Thu, 24 Jul 2014 11:39:48 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer no The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer (The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer) 2006-2009 ...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness Fr. Ernesto: Biting My Lip Hard Thu, 24 Jul 2014 04:01:47 +0000 crobh040701

Biting My Lip Hard
by Father Ernesto Obregon

The cartoon above makes me bite my lip real hard. The cartoonist caught just what some people think about the trend in some churches to turn the worship service into a coffee shop atmosphere with some talking. While the term “seeker sensitive” is not as much of a buzz-word as it used to be, the concept is still around.

But, there is a root that goes all the way back to the Jesus People of the 1970’s. The Jesus People were the parallel cultural reaction to the “hippies.” In both cases, there was a legitimate and merited rejection of the cookie cutter mentality of the 1950’s. They were not the only groups that pointed out the nominalism and cookie cutter attitude of the 1950’s. For instance, in 1956 the book “Peyton Place,” a book which tore into small town hypocrisy in the North, was released. In 1968, the country song “Harper Valley PTA” was released, pointing out hypocrisy in the South. George Orwell’s book 1984 points to a post-nuclear world in which the prevalent security and Cold War culture of the 1950’s is severely criticized.

Both the hippies and the Jesus People challenged the prevalent culture by dressing in ways that challenged the culture and behaving in ways that shocked prevalent culture. In the case of the hippies, events such as those chronicled in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was one example. Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were chronicled as they made their way around the country in their brightly painted bus, using LSD and generally shocking people. The Beatles write the song “Magical Mystery Tour” about that type of trip:

Roll up, roll up for the mystery tour
Roll up, roll up for the mystery tour
Roll up (And that’s an invitation), roll up for the mystery tour
Roll up (To make a reservation), roll up for the mystery tour
The magical mystery tour is waiting to take you away
Waiting to take you away.

The Jesus People were something different, however. I am fully convinced that this was a true movement of the Holy Spirit. To this day, I still believe that God could not get into the churches of that time. After all, as chronicled by Martin Luther King in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, many of the churches either openly supported both the segregation and miscegenation laws, or were cowed into total silence. Their stand was so antithetical to Christianity that God decided to raise praised to himself from even among the stones. Many youth with a “stone” heart, many a youth who was rejecting the culture and acting out by taking drugs and joining other religions, had their heart touched by the Holy Spirit and a revival broke out.

As with many a move of the Holy Spirit, people with free will took that move one way or the other. To the good, many churches were renewed, many people were touched for God, many people became life-long Christians. Twenty years after the beginning of the Jesus People movement, a group of those people entered the Antiochian Archdiocese, changing the face of Orthodoxy in America. That very move of the Holy Spirit in the 1960’s has today resulted in an openness to converts that was simply not present in American Orthodoxy of the early 1960’s.

On the other hand, it is also true that some have slowly taken the Jesus People movement in a different direction. For them, the message of what they experienced was misheard. Over the decades since then, the message that they took from it is that the Church must be a counter-cultural entity, meaning that it must always be doing things that are on the “cutting-edge” of culture. Any “rules” about what should happen in a worship service were slowly relaxed, and then dismissed. Nowadays, one can indeed find churches like those mocked in the comic above, where one comes in with their coffee, sits on a couch, has a sermon/discussion, etc. When multiple tattoos were still cutting-edge, many in these churches jumped into tattoos, piercings, etc. [Note: my purpose is not to criticize tattoos and piercings.] What I am trying to point out is that Christian slowly became defined as one who is always adopting the latest cutting-edge cultural trend and bringing it into the Church.

I look back with both nostalgia and horror. I was part of the events back then. I have a deep nostalgia for singers such as Keith Green, who truly called us to live out what it means to follow Jesus. I have a deep nostalgia for a faith tinged with wonder and discovery, and strong church growth. At the same time, I look back with horror over some of the other events from back then and how they led us into some of the craziness we see today in the cutting-edge congregations. And, yet, I would welcome another move of the Holy Spirit, a move so strong that Orthodoxy is again touched with the wonder that Metropolitan Philip of blessed memory expressed when he welcomed home the Evangelicals who flocked in back in the late 1980’s and continuing on for many years after that.

• • •

Thanks to Fr. Ernesto for permission to re-post this piece. I resonate with much that he says.

He blogs regularly at OrthoCuban.

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iMonk Classic: Letters to a Friend (parts 2-3) Wed, 23 Jul 2014 04:01:47 +0000 iStock_000014882479Small-634x252

Note from CM: Letters to a Friend was a series of posts Michael Spencer wrote in July 2007, responding to some comments from a Christian friend regarding theology, divisions and debates. Today we look at parts two and three of this series.

• • •

Friend says, “I reject the claims of various (evangelical) Christian groups to be infallible, right about everything and all other Christians except themselves wrong. This makes the entire business of theological debate meaningless and ridiculous to me. God is obviously above theology, and we have no idea what God thinks about who’s right in these theological debates. Perhaps God sees issues like the Lord’s Supper in a completely different way than any church teaches. When unbelievers, like my atheist friends, hear of these doctrinal debates, it discredits all of Christianity.”


Dear Friend,

One word that stood out to me in your talk was the word “infallible.” I found myself in considerable disagreement with what it appears you meant when you assigned this word to persons like myself and others who promote theology. Perhaps you can clarify and we will be in more agreement.

I understand the term “infallible” to mean “unable to be wrong.” If something or someone is infallible, it is not possible for error to originate with them.

A person may claim to be right, but the claim of infallibility is something quite separate. I’m not surprised when anyone claims they are right. Your own words indicate you believe, on the basis of logic, that you are right. But you would not make a claim to infallibility.

Infallibility is considerably different from saying that someone believes they are right and not wrong. I believe I am right in saying I am 50 years old, but I do not claim to be infallible. I could be wrong. Error in knowing my age could originate with me. Many circumstances could cause me to be in error, but I am reasonably sure of this fact and would defend that conclusion.

The word “infallible” commonly occurs in two contexts among Christians. First, the Roman Catholic church claims that when the pope is functioning as the head of the church in an official teaching capacity, he is infallible. This produces a chain of tradition from the church that is infallible tradition.

This is a real advantage to the RCC. They use it, for example, to say only an infallible church could canonize scripture. I would disagree strongly, but the advantage of that approach is obvious. The problems are also obvious.

This is not saying the pope or the church cannot be wrong or do anything wrong. Some Catholic teachings, and many claims and practices, are not promoted infallibly. “Infallibility” is applied to very specific situations.

For example, in Galatians, Peter is confronted by Paul for his hypocrisy. This does not bother Roman Catholics in regard to Peter’s infallibility as the first pope, because all popes are sinners and make mistakes. Only in an official teaching capacity can he claim to be infallible. Bad people can be infallible popes in the RCC.

This does mean that the Roman Catholic church makes a kind of claim to infallibility that is different from the way other churches use the term. Since I disagree with it, I will gladly point out that when the RCC argues its case for doctrine, it does claim infallibility on a human level.

The second common use of “infallible” is among most Protestant evangelicals, who apply it to the Bible and the Bible only. They believe the Bible is inspired, infallible, authoritative and inerrant. (Not all evangelicals use all of these words or use them all in the same way, but that is another discussion.)

This means that no pastor, no church leader, no teacher and no denomination are infallible. The Bible only is infallible. The infallible Bible produces authoritative tradition through the infallible Holy Spirit and very fallible people.

Does that mean that, if the Bible is used to make a case, then infallibility is transfered to what is said or believed? The answer is “no.” While we believe the Bible is infallible, my version of what the Bible teaches about baptism is not infallible in the same way. My version of this doctrine may be in error, may be revised and may be improved. While I am reasonably certain I understand the Bible on this topic and I would have no problem saying I am convinced my view is right, I would never claim anything like infallibility.

I’m sure that the energy of many Christian debates seems to indicate that someone believes they cannot be wrong. I certainly know Christians who believe they, their pastor, their doctrine and their “team” are infallible, but if pressed they would admit that the only thing that actually can have the characteristic of infallibility is the Bible.

You were particularly bothered that I said I was certain enough of some doctrines that I would rather die than renounce them. This isn’t a claim to infallibility. It is a claim that I am convinced, as much as I can judge the subject, that I am correct. Being convinced doesn’t mean I am closed to the possibility of correction or change.

For example, I would die for certain aspects of my country, but I do not claim that America or myself are beyond error or absolutely right in an “infallible” sense. In a fallible, comparative sense, that response of loyalty is the right one.

I ask my children to obey me, but I would not claim infallibility in any aspect of parenting. Infallibility isn’t necessary to believe something is right enough to take a strong, sacrificial stand.

I have to disagree with you that contentious Christians are claiming infallibility. They may lack the humility and graciousness that should accompany any discussion. They may defend their position in a way that says they believe they cannot be wrong or less than perfectly right. They may demonstrate extreme stubbornness. But unless they are departing from their own Protestantism, all they can do is claim to be presenting the infallible claims of scripture fallibly.

Your answer to what you perceive as the dilemma of everyone claiming to be infallibility is to say that “God is beyond theology.” I’ll comment on that very postmodern assertion in another post.

So let me summarize where we are so far: I am not convinced that the kind of division or claims of infallibility you are reacting against actually exist. You may be “standing” in a place where these divisions seem to fill your screen, so to speak. I would suggest you take a more measured and less emotional look at the issue of Christian unity and doctrinal division. While there is much to lament, there is also much to celebrate, particularly among Christians who work, witness and minister together.



iStock_000014882479Small-634x252ON “GOD ABOVE THEOLOGY”

Dear Friend,

Probably the most provocative comment in your talk was the statement that “God is above theology.” If I remember correctly, you said this several times and it was obviously very crucial to your statement. I’d like to respond to this statement, because I believe it is the heart of the issue.

If God is not above theology, a number of things must change in your position.

For example, if God reveals or gives theology to human beings in a way they can understand, then we should not be surprised that there is a certain amount of contention and division among Christians. The Bible itself shows us conflict and division occurring among the churches and leaders in the New Testament over the issues of circumcision and inclusion of the Gentiles. Serious divisions are the reasons for some entire letters, such as the First Corinthian letter and the “Letters to the Seven Churches” in Revelation.

Theology has many definitions. I’ll assume that you are using theology in the sense of “human thoughts about God,” and that God has said “My thoughts are not your thoughts,” therefore our thoughts about God are not identical to God’s thoughts and ways.

No Christian that I am aware of believes there is complete identification between our thoughts and God’s mind. Every serious theologian wrestles with the issue of how we can say anything true about God since he is, as you say, “above” us and “other than us” in every way. The entire idea of divine revelation starts with the incomprehensibility of God.

To say that God is “above our theology” seems to indicate some despair on your part about theology, and this despair is your response to the arguments and disagreements you have observed. It is a position that would make some churches very attractive because they either reject all theology in favor or experience or they refuse to participate in most theological debates out of a certainty they have the truth.

Some despair about theology may result in the decision that all churches are equally “in the dark” in regard to truth, and therefore any church is equal to any other church, since doctrine is meaningless and practice/experience is all that matters. I would be cautious about taking these basically postmodern, relativistic positions that arise from a strong emotional reaction. The absence of conflict is hardly the proof that God is being honored rightly.

The important question here seems obvious: Is our theology completely our own creation, or does God reveal “theology” to us so that we can have “true truth” about him and respond accordingly?

The answer to that question seems simple, and I am sure that you appreciate it, even if you say God is “beyond” theology. God has revealed himself in creation, in Jesus and in scripture. I would say it more like this: God is revealed in general revelation, in Christ, in the scripture, through reason and in experience. All of these things are judged and regulated by scripture. I believe that there are several ways that God has given us theology and that he expects us to pay attention to what he has revealed.

For example, we have been studying Genesis 1-11 recently. You will recall that I said I have often asked students to do an assignment where they write down 50 things we can know about God from these early chapters of Genesis. This assignment typically yields statements like this:

“God exists.”
“God is creator.”
“God is creative.”
“God made human beings in his image.”
“God gave commands to Adam.”
“God is merciful and patient.”
“God punishes sin.”
“God chooses to remain involved in a rebellious world.”

All of these are theological statements, and I would have a hard time seeing that God is “beyond theology” when he has inspired these chapters with the obvious purpose of teaching these truths in language and example that anyone can understand. It actually seems that God is speaking, as Calvin said, “baby talk” so we can understand.

In John 1, John says that no one knew the Father until the Son made him known. The role of the Son in revealing what the Father is like, what the Father is doing, and so on is a major theme of the Gospel of John. This doesn’t seem to comport well with the idea that God is remaining above theology. It appears that the incarnation makes theology possible.

The inspiration of scripture rests upon the belief that God has expressed in human language what he wants us to know about Christ and salvation. If God is above our theology, then we should abandon any belief in the divine side of inspiration.

These various examples, however, are probably not what you intended by this statement. I believe you are looking at particular theological debates, such as the Lord’s Supper debate, and asserting that God is above this debate. Your statement that God’s view of the Lord’s Supper may differ from all of our views is the heart of what you mean. If this is true, then I must ask why God has revealed enough to start the theological discussion, but then made the solution inaccessible to anyone?

The problem is that all Christians are working with the same material: the incarnation, the salvation story and the Biblical text. These are revelatory. God has “come down” to us in ways that create faith, but that also create theology…and some conflict in interpretation.

So while I can agree that God is far “above” our confident efforts to say all there is to say, I do not believe God is above theology. I would agree with you that theology should be far more cautious and humble than many traditions attempt to make it. That is why I appreciate the minimal confessionalism of my own tradition and have some confusion at the attraction someone would feel for traditions that require complete confessional agreement with volumes and volumes of church teaching.

The Nicene Creed summarizes the theology that ought to bind the church together. A thousand page tome on the inner working of the Lord’s Supper is another attitude entirely. But that God does give us revelation in a way that causes theology to think some of God’s thoughts after him is undeniable.



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iMonk Classic: Letters to a Friend (part 1) Tue, 22 Jul 2014 04:01:02 +0000 iStock_000014882479Small-634x252

Note from CM: Letters to a Friend is a series of posts from 2007 that Michael Spencer wrote, responding to some comments of a Christian friend regarding theology, divisions and debates. This is part one.

• • •

Friend says, “I reject the claims of various (evangelical) Christian groups to be infallible, right about everything and all other Christians except themselves wrong. This makes the entire business of theological debate meaningless and ridiculous to me. God is obviously above theology, and we have no idea what God thinks about who’s right in these theological debates. Perhaps God sees issues like the Lord’s Supper in a completely different way than any church teaches. When unbelievers, like my atheist friends, hear of these doctrinal debates, it discredits all of Christianity.”


Dear Friend: Some of the general sense of what you say strikes me as true in a way that I can affirm. I believe it is important to do what Thomas Merton suggested: attempt to create in ourselves the kind of unity that will heal divisions in the body of Christ.

I am also often deeply disturbed by the doctrinal divisions among Christians. Because I work with many non-Christians, I am aware of how these divisions discredit the gospel, and it is a matter of shame.

I also believe we need a broad view of how every Christian tradition is right and wrong in various ways. I believe we need a large “humility” zone in our theological teaching, writing and, most certainly, debate.

When I look at the specifics of what you are saying, however, I find myself wanting to respond in some detail. I hope you’ll bear with me as I look at parts of what you are saying and give some alternative points of view.

It has always seemed to me that Christians disagreeing with other Christians about doctrine was a subject that resisted generalizations. We should be careful and cautious about exactly what we’re saying. For example, we want scientists and politicians to debate. We assume it’s good for the process, but when Christians debate, we have some guilt and discomfort, as if it’s always wrong.

Certainly we fall tremendously short of what Jesus prayed for in John 17, and the various kinds of division among Christians have made a mockery of Jesus’ words, especially those over race, nationality, between rich and poor and other ridiculous divisions. Though I can’t think of many instances of Christians committing acts of violence against other Christians these days for doctrinal reasons (political reasons are a different story,) it has occurred in history.

I think, however, if we compared Christian unity with, for example, what we see among Muslims or New Agers, we would have to admit that Christians have actually achieved a remarkable amount of unity on various levels, even though they still fall short of Christ’s command. Muslims are car bombing each other over doctrine, and the New Age movement is so individualistic that each person is almost their own religion.

Christians have an entire heritage of “ecumenical theology” that we can read in the early creeds of the churches, such as the Nicene Creed. Virtually all Christians are united in the foundational beliefs of Christianity. Even churches who don’t know these creeds exist generally assume the kind of beliefs those creeds proclaim. I would urge you to not overlook all the work of the early centuries of the church in achieving confessional unity at the most basic levels.

I hate to use percentages, but I’d say that out of a total collection of Christian beliefs, at least 75% of those beliefs are affirmed by the vast majority of Christians. This is no small thing. In fact, there is so much unity at the level of essential Christian beliefs, that you could not distinguish one Christian from another if you asked a group of them foundational questions.

This amount of unity is such a given that it’s easy to overlook. For example, the debates we have about the nature of the Lord’s Supper can make it appear that Christians are in complete disagreement when, in fact, all of us agree about many- most?- things related to the Lord’s Supper. Our disagreements are severe and painful, but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that if you took the essential elements of the Supper and the words of scripture about the Supper, we’d have tremendous common ground. Our disagreements begin when other issues and more theologizing takes place.

The “other 25%” of total Christian beliefs are full of the conflicts and controversies you are disturbed by, but I want to make some points about these as well. Let’s use the believer’s baptism versus infant baptism debate as the example to keep in mind.

For example, being aware of these controversies depends on where you are “standing.” In many contexts, Christians can work together, worship together and minister together with no conflict over the baptism issue at all. But if you went to the right places on the internet, or to the right seminary classroom or into the right fundamentalist church at the right time, the issue would be real and alive.

Because the baptism issue is “raging” on an internet discussion board may be a problem if atheists or unbelievers go to that board and read the discussion. But I’m pretty skeptical of the motives of someone who goes right to the place where conflict is happening. It’s not hard to find Christians standing together against abortion, feeding the hungry, providing charity to the poor or teaching kids in a mountain school. Ignoring those examples of unity and focusing on how a few Lutherans and a few Baptists argue on the internet is simply being microscopic.

In fact, those same Lutherans and Baptists, placed in churches in the same community, will not have a war or a public argument. Whatever conflict they have will be virtually invisible unless you go looking for it. They may cooperate and affirm one another far more than they disagree.

So, without disagreeing with your observation that Christian doctrinal conflict is a serious failure, I do want to say that I’m more impressed with the remarkable unity and cooperation that happens among Christians who differ doctrinally. Mark Noll has observed that there is more Catholic-Protestant unity today than there was 30 years ago because of common ground on social, political and cultural issues. Doctrine hasn’t kept Catholics and Protestants apart when it comes to working for causes they both affirm, such as pro-life.

I can’t keep from thinking about Pope Benedict’s recent statements that the Catholic church is the true church and all Protestants are part of deficient churches. While many Protestant bloggers noted the significance of the statement, its safe to say that the reaction of the average Catholic and Protestant in the average workplace or community was a big yawn. Such statements, which emphasize division, are largely irrelevant “on the ground.”

I’ll close with a wonderful discovery I made a few weeks ago. While reading David Wright on Baptism, I discovered that an ecumenical group of Christians had produced a document on Baptism and the Eucharist that demonstrates the remarkable unity that is possible among Christians when they sit down, talk, listen and work to articulate themselves clearly and generously. Without watering down differences, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry is a remarkable expression of unity at the level of serious scholarship. Not everyone is demonstrating the kind of contentious spirit you’ve seen and find distasteful and discouraging.

Next time I write, I’d like to talk about the concept of “infallibility,” and how it is used by various groups of Christians. It’s a place where I think we have to be very clear what the term means and how it is used. I think if we understand this term, we can correct the impression you have that all Christian groups are claiming to be infallibly right.



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The Spirit of Knowing Mon, 21 Jul 2014 04:01:31 +0000 toddler-asleep-on-dads-chest

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children.

• Romans 8:15-16, NLT

• • •

Sunday morning we had the privilege of going to our friend Randy Thompson’s church in Concord, NH to worship, meet his congregation, and hear him proclaim God’s Word. It was a good one, too. He spoke on a portion of Romans, chapter 8.

Romans 8 is the Mt. Everest of Scripture and I never tire of coming back to it for the profound encouragement it gives. From the declaration of “no condemnation” of 8:1 to the “no separation” of 8:35-39, this chapter provides vista after vista of breathtaking, Christ-centered gospel truth.

Randy made an important distinction for those of us in the congregation on Sunday. He, like I and so many others, have studied and learned parts of the Bible like Romans 8 as the high grounds of Christian doctrine. These texts thrill our minds, expand our intellectual horizons, and test those of us who preach and teach with the immense challenge of expounding hearty, nutritious theological content.

But read the text above once more.

The Apostle is speaking to friends, and he is encouraging them to not live fearfully in the presence of the God who loves them.

He reminds them that Jesus didn’t die and rise again in order to make us slaves. That is not our identity and it is not the way we ought to go about thinking of ourselves before God.

He calls them to remember that God adopted us to be his own beloved children, his heirs, those who receive his closest attention and dearest treasures.

God’s very Spirit has come to indwell us.

And the Spirit causes a profound sense of filial endearment to well up from our innermost being. This overflows from our lips as we cry out to God in prayer — child to Parent — exhibiting a deep reflex that reflects our living bond and the affection which accompanies it.

This is no mere “doctrine,” this is love.

• • •

Such teaching is true evangelical encouragement at its best.

Certain Christian traditions try hard to “safeguard the doctrine” and emphasize the objective truths of the gospel that come to us from God, from outside of us, so as not to give any place whatsoever to works-righteousness or human contribution in the process of salvation.

Other Christian traditions promote feelings and experience in a way that emphasizes having immediate, ecstatic encounters with God that instantly transform a person, raising him or her up to a new level of spiritual progress.

Paul’s teaching here counters both with something much more organic. God makes us his beloved children. God’s life is within us and our life is in God. We bond through a shared Spirit. We are not slaves, attached to the household, treated as servants and judged according to how well we perform our functions. We are God’s own flesh and blood, connected personally to him via a living connection of love.

This is something we feel and know by family instinct, not just because the pastor has preached on it, or because we passed our confirmation exam or went to seminary. It is not first of all a matter of intellectual understanding, any more than a baby’s response to her mother is rooted in having been taught.

I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

• Psalm 131:2, NRSV

Such language describes “knowing” in the deepest sense, the kind of personal knowing that includes certain facts and propositions that may be stated, but which ultimately transcends them with an embrace.

With this kind of knowing, Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord . . .” (Hosea 6:3, NRSV)

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A Highlight of the Summer of 2014 Sun, 20 Jul 2014 04:36:27 +0000 This is a summer with a lot of centennial connections for us and for the world.

  • We visited Monhegan Island the other day, off the coast of Maine. In 1614, John Smith was there, making this year the island’s quadricentennial.
  • We attended the celebration of our first church’s 200th anniversary. East Dover Baptist Church, East Dover, Vermont, was founded officially in 1814.
  • 2014 is also the centennial commemoration of the start of “The Great War,” World War I (1914). The “war to end all wars” unfortunately led to a century of conflict, the deadliest century the world has ever known. This past week, I briefly entertained the terrible fear that incidents like the shooting down of Malaysaian Airlines MH17 might be leading western nations toward a repeat performance.

Ah well, since we’re enjoying a final time of respite with Randy and Jill Thompson at lovely Forest Haven here in New Hampshire before we head home to Indiana, I’d like to focus on the positive today and commemorate this auspicious year by showing you some pictures from our day trip to Monhegan.

That’s a day I will long remember.

May these images breath a little Sabbath into your Sunday.

Harbor Monhegan Lighthouse View from a House Harbor View Monhegan Houses Monhegan House Eastern Shore South Eastern Shore North Gull Resting Monhegan Church Exterior Monhegan Church Interior Sailboat Crashing Waves Tugboat Wreck Gull over the Water Clouds from Harbor

Click on an image.

A new page with a thumbnail will appear. Click on thumbnail for full-size image.

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Saturday Ramblings, July 19, 2014. World News Edition Sat, 19 Jul 2014 04:01:03 +0000 MH17

Two huge news stories dominated our attention this week, and so we will forgo our usual Ramblings today to give opportunity for the Internet Monk community to discuss these events.

  • Malaysia Flight 17 was cruising at 33,000 feet over Ukraine, more than half a mile higher than Mt. Everest, when a rocket hit it July 17, killing all 298 aboard. U.S. President Obama said the plane “was shot down” Thursday by a surface-to-air missile fired from separatist territory in the country that has been beset by escalating violence. The president called the act “an outrage of unspeakable proportions.” An international inquiry is being organized, and investigators have been struggling to reach the wreckage and bodies strewn across fields of wheat and sunflowers in separatist-held territory.
  • gaza_81454Israel launched a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip this week, the first significant incursion into Gaza since 2009. As of this report, more than 290 Palestinians, including dozens of children, and two Israelis have been killed since fighting intensified last week, and more than 52 Gazans have died since the ground offensive began, according to Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Qedra.

These tragic events have awakened us afresh to the fragile state of peace in our world today. How should the community that follows Jesus think about these things? How should we respond? How should we pray?

These are the topics for today. More serious than usual for a Saturday, but this has been no ordinary week.

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#1 Reason Why Church Attendance Is Down – Really? Fri, 18 Jul 2014 05:27:49 +0000 Caprese_Pizza_ 012No, the number one reason why church attendance is down is not pizza. I did think however, that the story of a fictional iMonk pizzeria might help us understand the flaws in the stated reason and proposed solutions that are detailed later on in the post.

Imagine you are a neighborhood pizzeria owner.  As the proprietor of iMonk Pizza you are concerned.  Sales are down, profits are down and your business seems to be in decline.  You hire an expensive business consultant who examines the data from your frequent  purchaser club (buy 10 pizzas and get the next one free!)  Several weeks, and several thousand dollars later he delivers (no pun intended) his results.  The reason why your sales are down is because…

People are purchasing less frequently!

He explains it this way.  Most people in your frequent purchaser club used to come in at least once a week.  While many of them still do, some are purchasing once every couple of weeks.  Others, just once a month.  Still others are only coming in for special occasions, like purchasing pizza for their child’s birthday party.

The resolution to this difficulty, according the consultant, is to get people to come in more frequently, and he has five strategies to help you achieve this.

  1. Tell people how important it is for them to eat your pizza.  Tell them about the care that goes into making each pizza.  Tell them about the special way that you prepare your crust.  Tell them how filling it is.
  2. Make sure people understand what the frequent purchaser club is all about.  Require them to read the 15 page terms and conditions document before they get their first punch card.
  3. Get the members of the frequent purchasers club more involved in your business.  Have fliers on hand that they can hand out around their neighborhood.
  4. Extend your business hours so that customers can order when it is convenient to them.
  5. Monitor who is coming into your business, and when.  Send them a card when you haven’t seen them for a while.

Unfortunately, while the consultant was right that the number one reason that your business was in decline was because people came less frequently, he completely missed the real reasons why people were coming less frequently.  By talking with your customers you discover:

The recession has hit your customers hard. Susan lost her job.  She used to buy from you every week, but now only can afford to buy once a month.

John still has a job.  But his job has him commuting 3 hours a day.  Because he gets home so late, he eats in the town in which he is working.

Steve and Bob are college students and the pizzeria down the road has transformed itself into a sports bar with the requisite pub food and big screen TVs.  They still like your pizza, but would rather hang out and watch the game at the other place.

When Ted was on holiday he tried a pizza with a lobster topping and absolutely loved it.  Although he still drops in from time to time, Ted has switched his loyalties to another pizzeria in town that carries that topping.

Charlotte just came back from Chicago where she experienced authentic deep dish pizza.  She swears she will never try regular pizza again.

Fred is helping take care of his dying father across town.  He is usually over there feeding his father at supper time.

Mary has gotten tired of your pizza.  It hasn’t changed much over the years.  While she still comes in, her visits are not as frequent.

Alexander has been having his lunch at the new “Pita Surprise” that opened up down the street.  He believes it is a healthier alternative to Pizza.

And speaking of healthy alternatives, Mike has discovered that over the past year he has put on 30 pounds eating iMonk pizza.  On Doctor’s orders he is now on a pizza free diet (though he does manage to still sneak in once in a while.)

You realize that your consultants report isn’t going to do much to increase pizza purchases at iMonk pizza, and you need some real solutions to address the real problems…

Quite often items from friends come into my facebook feed that make me raise an eyebrow. Most of the the time I will let it slide, people have passionate views about things, and stating a contrary view doesn’t do much to build relationships. There was however, a recent share of an older post that I just couldn’t pass up.  According to Thom Rainer, the President and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, the number one reason why church attendance is down is…

People attend less frequently!

He also proposes some solutions:

  1. Raise the expectations of membership. You may be surprised how many church members don’t really think it’s that important to be an active part of the church. No one has ever told them differently.
  2. Require an entry class for membership. By doing so, the church makes a statement that membership is meaningful. The class should also be used to state the expectations of what a committed member looks like.
  3. Encourage ministry involvement. Many members become less frequent attendees because they have no ministry roles in the church. They do not feel like they are an integral part of the church.
  4. Offer more options for worship times. Our culture is now a 24/7 population. Some members have to work during the times of worship services. If possible, give them options. One businessman recently told me that he changed congregations to a church that offered a Saturday worship time because his job required him to catch a plane on Sunday morning.
  5. Monitor attendance of each member. This approach is often difficult, especially for worship attendance. That is why the traditional Sunday school approach of calling absentees was so effective. Perhaps churches can incorporate that approach in all groups. Members are less likely to be absent if they know someone misses them.

Here is the problem, like the pizza consultant, when your solutions don’t address why people  are actually attending less frequently, you are likely to end up with the wrong solutions.

Take me for example, for a number of reasons, I am very close to burnout.  When I hear words like “active”, “committed”, “involvement”, and “monitor attendance”, it is going to produce the opposite of the intended effect in me.  If I hear these words from the pulpit on a Sunday morning, I am going to be less likely, not more likely,  to attend the following week.  I am burnt out and you want a larger commitment from me?!?

Seven years ago, when we searching for a new Pastor, our church surveyed our community.  When asked the number one reason why they didn’t attend church, the top two responses could be summarized as:  “Too tired”, and “not enough time.”

What I need to hear, and they need to hear is:

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  - Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)

I know there are many who will read this who attend church less frequently than before.  Many of you attend different churches than you attended previously, i.e. your frequency of attendance at the previous church dropped to zero.  Your reasons are likely to be different to mine.  What are some of the real reasons why your attendance became less frequent, or you dropped out of that church altogether? What prospective solutions could have been offered that might have made a difference?  As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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A Foggy Day on the Water Thu, 17 Jul 2014 04:02:28 +0000 Fog is one of the metaphors we have used for the wilderness journey. You can’t see your way clear. The landscape around you is vague and undefined. You are locked in to seeing a limited locale and you have to make your way carefully lest you run into something your eyes could not anticipate.

Our two days on Little Cranberry Island were days of rain and fog. Not what we anticipated. However, the weather could not destroy good fellowship with friends, and it also carried a beauty of its own that cried out to be appreciated.

Here are a few photos of our foggy days in Maine.

Foggy Harbor Sailboat in Fog Great Cranberry Dock in Fog Rowing in Fog Boarding in Fog Ted's Boat in Fog

Click on a photo. A thumbnail of that photo will appear.

Click again to see full image.

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Open Forum — July 16, 2014 Wed, 16 Jul 2014 04:01:47 +0000 image

While Gail and I enjoy the hospitality of IM reader Ted and his wife here in Maine, I will leave it to you all to come up with today’s topics in an open forum.

Be civil.

Don’t dominate the discussion.

Listen well.

Enjoy God’s gift of conversation.

If the site holds your comment for some reason, be patient — I may not be able to release it for awhile.


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Unholy Busyness Tue, 15 Jul 2014 04:01:17 +0000 14645667541_4541571910_z

Unholy Busyness
by Lisa Dye

Now I am saying this for your own benefit, not to put a restraint on you, but because of what is proper and so that you may be devoted to the Lord without distraction.

— 1 Corinthians 7:35

My mother-in-law is 90 years old, works two part-time jobs, prays daily for all her five generations of people and is busily wading through an ambitious extracurricular bucket list. She’s always been a high-energy person who thrives on activity, but even she has her moments when it is all too much. During those times, she utilizes an earthy expression I’ve changed a bit so as not to offend any reader sensibilities. “I’m like a f–t [natural human gas explosion] in a whirlwind.”

Let that settle on you for just a few seconds and tell me if it does not aptly describe the way an overly busy life dissipates not only our effectiveness in practical ways, but our spiritual focus and peace as well. Dissipation is an old-fashioned term for a very contemporary and increasingly common plight.

When I used to think of dissipation, I thought of drunkenness … probably because one of the first Scripture verses I memorized from the New American Standard Bible I used as a young Christian was Ephesians 5:18, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” As I’ve grown older, the definition has broadened for me.

The dictionary defines dissipation as “a wasteful expenditure or consumption.” Dissipation is also a science term … something to do with thermodynamic irreversible processes in which energy is transferred from one form to a lesser final form. At any rate, the idea is that dissipation results in weakening powers and concentrations, deviations from focus and effectiveness. Human dissipation could be caused by alcohol or drugs or sex … the things we expect to dissipate us … or it could be caused by something that blindsides us by its seeming worthiness. We don’t expect to be dissipated by the activities of family life or honorable work with which we care for our people or even the practices of our faith. Yet, we may experience as many dissipating effects from what we consider our virtues as from what we consider our vices. John Wesley expressed this thought in one of his sermons when he wrote, “A man may be as much dissipated from God by the study of mathematics or astronomy, as by fondness for cards or hounds.”

Although I’m not particularly drawn to cards or hounds, or even mathematics and astronomy, I’ve been noticing that the daily morning times I spend sitting with the Lord and which I have always considered inviolable are more frequently getting shortened or postponed to evening. The margins of time I have always kept in order to finish a project or buy a birthday present have decreased until their status is usually last minute or late. My desk is a mess. My phone is filled with unanswered text messages and emails. I stay up too late. I wake up tired and I always feel my people are unsatisfied with how much of me they get.

Don’t ask me how this has happened because I am still in the process of trying to figure it out. My nest is emptying and I don’t have the day-to-day loads of laundry and dishes and the chaos of a houseful of children. But somehow I am busier with grown children and work … and more unfocused than at any time in the history of my life. I really hate saying it, but I am in danger of becoming a dissipated woman.

Father Jacque Philippe has this to say in his book Time for God: “Time is not always the real problem. The real problem is knowing what really matters in life.” He points out that we make time to eat and do other things we consider important. The neglect of time with God is a crisis born from failing to see it as a crucial relationship. This neglect wastes our efforts and energies and scatters us to the far winds.

I look around me and see this problem nearly everywhere. We are dissipated people raising dissipated families, working in dissipated communities, worshipping in dissipated churches and living in dissipated countries. Our default is to put the blame on culture or economics or politics, the outward circumstances and influences of our lives. That is certainly where the many problems of dissipation manifest, but it is essentially a spiritual problem of leaving enclosure with Christ.

Richard Foster writes in his book, Freedom of Simplicity, “What will set us free from this bondage to the ever-spiraling demands that are placed upon us? The answer is found in the grace of Christian simplicity. This virtue, once worked into our lives, will unify the demands of our existence; it will prune and trim gently and in the right places, bringing a liberty of soul that will eliminate constant reversions to ourselves.”

The classic picture of unholy busyness versus Christian simplicity in Scripture is that of Lazarus’s household where sister Martha got herself worked into an anxious fit over the details of her dinner party while sister Mary sat oblivious and listening to Jesus talk (see Luke 10:38-42). Being a Martha by nature, I used to get annoyed when reading this story. Why was she the bad one? How does Jesus, or anyone else, think stuff gets done in this world, if not by people who will roll up their sleeves and do it? Slowly, I have come to see that Martha was not being portrayed as the bad sister. She was, however, distracted in a way that Mary was not and Jesus was reminding her of the point of her serving … relationship to Him. He didn’t say, “Stop with the dinner parties, already.” He obviously enjoyed the fruits of her labor and stayed regularly at her house. He was lovingly telling her to simplify, to come in and sit down and be a part of the conversation.

Jesus addressed the problem of unholy busyness elsewhere too. We like to think of the story of the rich young ruler as a commentary on wealth being a snare in spiritual life. True, wealth can result in dissipation, but the ruler was as hindered by all his working at righteousness as he was by his wealth. He wasn’t interested in being saved, but rather in saving himself by trying to fulfill all the jots and tittles of the Law.

In his diatribe against the Pharisees for their additions to the Law and their contrivance of a complex legal and religious system, Jesus warns against this very thing. “They tie up heavy loads and put them on the men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4). Jesus’ summation of the Law was simple and succinct. Love God. Love your neighbor.

A complex and weighty burden of religious boxes to tick off is at least part of what Luther longed to reform with his five solae. Instead, he managed to tick off the Church, but for a moment let us put aside the divisiveness of the Reformation and think about the simplicity he advocated … Christ, Scripture, Faith, Grace and Glory to God. If we truly lived in that, we might not have as much to argue and we might not get caught in life’s whirlwinds.

St. Therese of Lisieux captured this simplicity with her “little way.” She was convinced that anything she accomplished in life came by loving God and living in union with him and that when she entered eternity, it would be holding onto nothing but him. Thus, even having lived a cloistered life and dying at a young age, she made a mark in the Church and an impact on Christians throughout the world.

St. Teresa of Avila was a more complicated woman who spent considerable time in silent contemplation of God’s presence. It was a difficult struggle and she admits to often being distracted by worldly things and her own vanity, especially as a young woman. Even as she matured in her faith, distraction in prayer was a continuous battle. She wrote much about it in her autobiography. “Sometimes I say to Him: Oh my God, when can my soul be entirely united in Your praise, instead of being distracted and unable to control itself?”

Granted, these examples are of people whose “work” was religious devotion. Some of them may not have had the cares of family or of trying to scratch out a living in the world, but the principle of simplicity is vital for anyone who wants follow Christ. Distraction and busyness are the springboards to turning aside from God in ever-increasing and ever-broadening ways. They are the little foxes that come into spoil the vine (Solomon 2:15). They are the thorns that choke out the good plants (Mark 4:7). They are the essence of what goes awry and precedes dissipation. Whatever distracts us from loving, enjoying and attending to God in the life to which he calls us is the precursor to the wasteful expenditure of ourselves.

Dissipation is a sly infiltrator. It can sneak up and take us without a shot being fired. We wake up one morning out of money, out of time, out of energy, out of hope and out of ideas. We can no longer keep up with life. It’s easy to get in this predicament, but much harder to get out of it. One problem that comes with dissipation is inertia or apathy. We might be so out of gas physically, emotional and spiritually that we don’t care anymore. It’s one reason why periodic examination to determine how much of anything we should have and do in every area of life is essential. We must edit.

Richard Foster recalls a particularly exhausted and busy time of his life years ago. He sat in an airport reading Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion. Suddenly, he was conscious of tears falling on his coat. The moment, though quiet and personal, was life changing. It was the moment he realized he had to learn to say, “No” … no to people, no to possessions, no to more and more work. Sacramental living is selective and purposeful. It is lived at God’s feet, in submission to his will, and to no one else’s. If we let ourselves be spent by the demands of others, no matter how worthy or urgent, we will not be spent by God, who knows all things and who knows us.

Once when I was at a writer’s conference, one of the speakers told us that as writers we needed to develop a habit of sanctified selfishness. On the surface that seems … well … selfish. But writing does not happen in the press and stress of life. The press and stress may be good fodder for what we do write, but it is the quiet alone times that call up worthy words. I have found this to be a true and needful principle of writing that translates to life and to spiritual life as well. It’s not that we are to live self-centered and narcissistic lives, but we are to live protectively of and exclusively for what God calls us to do and who he calls us to be. For that, we need sanctuary. We need Christ. We need to sit awhile and abide in him. We need to discern his will for our talents and energies and days.

Jesus did this in his own life. When his days grew long and the crowds pressed in constantly, he drew away to quiet places to talk to his Father. He invites us to do the same … to come out of the whirlwind. “Come to me. I will give you rest.”

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