Road Trip Epiphanies

Road trip!  There was a time when those two words had a sense of great excitement for me.  I guess they still do under a certain set of circumstances.  But those circumstances do not include a trip that you make because you have to make, as opposed to one you want to make.  Nor if you choose to make it as quickly as possible, even if it means traveling every day.  Nor if it occurs in the dead of winter and in the midst of the dreaded snow and wintry mix.  Nor if you encounter subzero temperatures along the way. 

It being the season of Epiphany, however, I’ve been trying to find some of those “Aha!” moments that are what Epiphany is supposed to be about.  And I found them.  In spite of all the circumstances above, I got to spend it all in the company of my granddaughter.   I enjoyed that very much.  Then I wished I could do the same thing with each of my grandchildren.  I seldom get to spend one-on-one time with them, and never for almost a whole week.  But not in winter and not because we had to.  Maybe when we had more time.  One of my grandsons even posted on Facebook this week that he missed the day-long trips in the car listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Old Stewball was a race horse …. Coincidence?  I think not! 

We already had a very tight and demanding schedule, but then we were thrown a wicked curve that required an additional two-day stay and two more travel days.  But we had no choice, so we simply decided we’d have to make the best of it.  As it turned out, the delay will save us a repeat of the road trip in about five weeks and would delay our return home by two days.  Those two days gave the sun and the plows time to clear the roads of the 12+ inches of snow that fell on the day we originally would have been arriving home.  I’m not suggesting that God delayed things in order to provide us with those two benefits.  I don’t believe that God works like that.  But I do believe that life is a wonderfully complex journey that includes the interaction between choices we and others make and circumstances over which we have no control.  Very little in life does not have a whole continuum of pluses and minuses.  We get to pick the places in which we search for our “Aha!” moments.

 I had a major “Aha!” moment all by myself.  I went to get the car to bring it around and pick up my granddaughter at the entrance to the building.  The temperature was approaching Absolute Zero.  Ok.  Ok.  But it was cold.  And that wintry stuff was everywhere.  As I walked to the car, I stepped on a patch of clear ice.  My feet flew up in front of me as the rest of me started over backwards.  For a brief moment I found myself suspended parallel to and about three feet above the cold, hard, ice-packed parking lot.  Clearly a metaphor for life itself.  In that moment, I actually had the thought, “This is not going to end well.”  It didn’t take long for gravity to bring me down.  After all, I offer a pretty good target for gravity.  My landing was not gentle, and it knocked the breath out of me.  As I lay there trying to catch my breath, I was afraid to try and get up.  I was afraid that my hip, which had taken the brunt of my hard landing, would be broken. I took my time, moving slowly, and found that everything was functioning well.  At least as well as anything functions in my sixty-nine-year-old body.  I was a little sore, but as functional as I had been before the crash landing.  Just wait until tomorrow, I thought.  I’ll hurt in places I didn’t now I had places.  I was wrong.  A couple of additional tender spots the next morning, but nothing like I was worried about.  Sometimes things turn out as bad as you expect.  Or worse.  But sometimes, like this time, your worst fears are not realized.  Be grateful.  I was, and I am.

 The truth is any journey, including life, will have its good moments and its bad ones. Falls will come, but most of them could be worse. Storms are always around and can be dangerous, but virtually any storm could be worse than it was where you were.  Circumstances we cannot control will impact our journey in both positive and negative ways. The road trip we call life is full of all kinds of experiences, any of which – whether positive or negative – can be one of those “Aha!” moments. But you’ve got to be listening and expectant in order to hear. I am grateful. For life.  For all of its complexities.  For epiphanies. For those along on the journey. Grateful.  Maybe, in light of everything going on, that is the most significant epiphany of all.

Who Gets to Decide Who Is a Christian?

What is your working definition of a Christian? And who gets to decide whether or not a person is a Christian? In certain quarters those are topics of great importance in our culture. During the last presidential election cycle there were frequent articles about whether or not Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was a Christian. Again, what is the definition of a Christian and who gets to decide whether or not one does or does not meet that definition? The same issue is at the heart of the argument over whether or not the United States was at its founding and/or should be now a “Christian nation.” What is the definition of “Christian” and who gets to decide whether or not our nation meets that definition? Of course, Christians are not the only religious tribe who face this issue. In every religious tribe there will be several expressions of what it means to be a member of that particular tribe. Some are the true believers. They are committed to the tribe’s religious tradition, but even more are committed to the faith and spiritual understandings that underlie that tradition. Of course, this group could be further divided — into liberals and conservatives, orthodox and progressive, as well as several other permutations. There are also the secularists within the tribe. Their connection to the tribe is primarily a cultural one. They may or may not celebrate the rituals of the tribe, or share the stated theological beliefs of the tribe, or even identify with the world view of the tribe. But their identity is firmly connected to the tribe. The tribe is their culture. It is them. While this is true of every religious tribe, I’m concerned primarily about how that plays out in my own tribe.

The evidence seems to me clear that certain groups of Christians think they have the right — or even the duty — to decide who is and who is not a legitimate member of the Christian tribe. The most common way that I experience people making that decision is by comparing others to their own understanding and expression of Christianity. That is, one is a Christian if he or she believes, talks, acts, like me. That makes “me” the standard for what a Christian is. Each of these people, of course, will also claim that they use the Bible as the standard for deciding. What they really mean, but seldom say, is that they use the Bible as they themselves understand and interpret it. As do we all. They tend to be quite selective which parts of the Scripture they use. Others make their decisions by “formula.” By that I mean they have a kind of checklist to decide whether or not someone is a Christian. Have you been “born again”? Or do you believe in the Apostles’ Creed? Or the Baptist Faith and Message? Which version – 1963, 2000? As Jesus said, however, “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ (or ‘I’ve been born again’ or ‘I believe’) will enter the Kingdom. In some places, you are a Christian if you have been baptized or even if you have been born a citizen of a “Christian” nation. So we’ve come back to the original question. Who gets to decide who is and who is not a member of the Christian tribe? Or is it up to each of us to make that declaration for oneself regardless of what others might say about it. Can you be a member of the tribe if the tribe, or large segments of it, don’t want to include you?

I think all of that misses the point. The entirety of Jesus’ statement above is, Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom, but he or she who does the will of the Father.” I believe that being a member of the Christian family is not defined by one’s own declaration of belonging, or by affirming a human created formula. Inclusion is defined rather by relationship. Relationship with God (loving God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength). Relationship with other people (loving one’s neighbor as one’s self). In that sense, we each do get to define whether or not we are Christians, but not simply by making such a claim. We define ourselves as Christian by how closely our lives (our actions) resemble the life and actions of Jesus. Saying you are a Christian no more makes you one than saying you are bird enables you to fly. A person is Christian to the extent his or her life looks like Jesus’ life, reflects Jesus’ values, and echoes Jesus’ actions. Part of that, by the way, means you don’t get to judge whether others are Christian or not. You get to love them anyway, just like you find them. Just like Jesus did, which then quite clearly identifies you as a member of the Jesus tribe. As Jeff Foxworthy might say, “You just might be a Christian if” …. you look like Jesus. Some will be bothered by that because it doesn’t require adherence to certain believes and/or assertions that they hold sacred and essential. That’s one of many things about Jesus that bothered the Temple Priests and Elders. In response to their challenge of his authority, Jesus told a parable about about a father who had two sons. No, not that one in Luke 15. The one in Matthew 21:28-32. This father asked both of his sons to go work in the family vineyard that day. One said said he would not, but later changed his mind and did indeed work in the vineyard. The other son told the father with respoect that he was on his way, but he never showed up. Which of the two, Jesus asked, did the will of the father? Doing the will of the father, Jesus’ standard for entering the Kingdom. For being a member of the family of God. For being in the tribe of Jesus. For being a Christian.

Church: My 40 Frustrating/Rewarding Years

It is graduation week at The John Leland Center for Theological Studies, an occasion that almost always puts me in a reflective mood. Forty-three years ago, I was one of those newly-minted seminary graduates heading to begin a lifetime of ministry in and through the local church. It was 1970 and the world was changing. Rapidly. But since the church in general and Baptists in particular tend to lag at least several decades behind the rest of the culture, it was no later than the 1950’s in my world. In retrospect, I realize I received an excellent theological education but was also trained to manage a church. I wasn’t very far in ministry before it began to dawn on me that the church I had been trained to manage no longer existed — if indeed it ever did exist in reality. The benefit today’s graduates have is that they KNOW the church is in a state of transition, and no one knows the shape of church life and ministry toward which that transition is moving. They will be among those who help to define the shape of the church tomorrow. In my current reflective mood, I’ve been thinking about the fact that the “church” is not just one thing. It has many expressions, and each of these expressions has strengths and weaknesses. In my forty-three years of living and ministering with churches I’ve experienced the various frustrations and rewards of these different expressions of the church.

Without question, the most frustrating and aggravating and disturbing expression of the church is the church as an institution. Having “come of age” during the ’60’s, a decade in which every institution of society was challenged and found wanting, I admit to an anti-institutional bias. At the same time, I cannot imagine the church existing without some institutional qualities. But institutions are heartless. Soul-less. One of the formative books of my seminary years was Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, one theme of which is that inside an organization (an institution) even moral individuals act in immoral ways. Even good people become infected with the first law of any institution — be it church, corporation, educational, or any other. That rule is the survival of the institution itself, whatever the cost. Including the moral cost. I believe that this is the expression of church against which so many are reacting today. The “Nones” and the “spiritual but not religious” are turned off by this expression of the church. But so are many of us who live and minister within that church. It is my greatest frustration in ministry to see decisions being made out of this first law of institutions.

Another expression of the church is the community itself. The people who are the church. Within this community are as wide a variety of persons as there are in any similar segment of the broader culture. They are also at different places in their spiritual formation as Christ-followers. There is great reward in watching them grow, in hoping that maybe you had a little bit to do with that growth. Of course, when they act in ways that don’t reflect the spirit of Christ, there can also be a real sense of failure. The church as community can do some wonderful things for others that reflect Christ’s presence in them, but as people they can also grow very comfortable with one another so that they become like a social club. They like one another and enjoy being with one another. The church and its on-going life becomes a very comfortable place for them to be. The danger is the development of a tendency to preserve the status quo, because this community has come to mean so much to them and they feel so comfortable as a part of the community. They may even do some real good, but there are many social clubs that also do many wonderful altruistic things. There is nothing wrong with that, unless this group of people is supposed to be even more.

The church is also supposed to be an expression of the Kingdom of God. Not the only one, but a meaningful one. If a minister is lucky over a lifetime of ministry, he or she will have the joy of observing from close range the transformation of a few individuals in such a radical way that wherever they are it is clear that the Kingdom of God is present there. In my experience, this doesn’t happen very often. Jesus did say that the gate was narrow and the way difficult that lead to this kind of radical transformation. He also said that there are only a few who find it. But when privileged to share the journey with one in whose life this transformation takes place, it is the most rewarding thing in ministry. This is the church as the Kingdom of God — persons radically transformed who then transform culture.

Over these 40+ years in ministry I’ve been asked more times than I care to count about how many my church has baptized, how many buildings we have built, how big the church budget is. Institutional questions. I have never been asked, Do your people behave more like Jesus since you have been ministering among them? That’s the Kingdom question. I wish I could always answer that question in the affirmative, but I cannot. I have become much more focused on the Kingdom. I’m not against a church flourishing as an institution. I’m not against a church made up of a group of people who genuinely like and enjoy one another’s fellowship and want to enjoy what they have as a community. But both of those things can be present and the Kingdom of God be nowhere to be found. So, if I were delivering the graduation address this year, I would tell our graduates to keep their focus on Kingdom-building. You’ll have to give attention to the institution that calls you and supports you. You’ll have to minister to and care for the people who make up that community of faith. But never lose sight of the fact God has called you be a transforming presence in that institution and for that community. God has called you to Kingdom-building, and nothing that does not focus on that will make for successful ministry.

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