Friday, August 26, 2011

Organized Religion ...

Does a Christian need a church to be a Christian?  Can we call ourselves followers of Christ but not subscribe to any form of organized religion, or does being part “of the body” require more of us than our individual devotion to our Lord?  In today’s culture there seems to be apathy if not disdain for organized religions in almost every variety.  A good number of people who identify themselves as Christians also admit they do not attend church regularly, some not at all.  Even within our own faith, church membership on the books or registry roles far exceeds who we see next to us week to week in the pews.  What appears to have so many Christians disinterested in weekly fellowship?  Is organization itself the cause, or is it something deeper?

To be of one accord; this was our goal, if not our mandate as Christians; to be one, as Jesus was one with His Father; a level of unity of purpose and intent that to date seems to have eluded us as Christians.  There are nearly 1000 different denominations of Christian churches around the world with reasonably significant memberships.  How can we even begin to talk of unity when there are a thousand different varieties of Christians who hold beliefs significantly different enough to warrant a thousand different organizations dedicated to the preservation of those differing beliefs.  It seems the only real thing that might unite us is our enemy.  Everyone (in the Christian community) would agree Satan is no friend of the followers of Christ, and yet almost each faith would gladly accuse the others of having been influenced by Satan for holding beliefs different from their own.  Everyone (again in the Christian community) would also agree that Muslims are mistaken in their beliefs and somehow seem to pose a threat to Christian values, yet most cannot point to a particular Islamic doctrine they are opposed to.  Atheists in general seem to pose the greatest “threat” to Christianity at large, as they are generally tagged as liberal, elitist, intellectuals who wish to see only their own anti-god agenda become the norm for society at large.  Sadly, only external opposition seems to bring Christians of different churches into any sort of unity with each other.  How far this is from the words of our Lord to be “as one”.
Organized religion must also contend with the woes of financial collection and distribution.  How much money should a pastor make?  If he is a pastor of a small church, should his income be equally small – or of a mega church, should his income be equally huge?  And when charitable missions are undertaken, who should receive the funds, in what amounts, to what audiences (local, regional, national, or global)?  Over time even the most patient of Christians begins to wonder what happens to his tithes and offerings once they exit his wallet.  It is easy to find a way to disagree with how your organization uses your funding, and then as a result become reluctant to continue giving.  How money is distributed becomes a substantial point of contention for many.
But perhaps more serious than how we spend our funds, is how much dedication we put into maintaining the rigidity of our beliefs among our various congregations.  It is not uncommon to hear a particular Christian church accuse another one of differing beliefs, of missing the kingdom of God, simply because they disagree about particular doctrines.  How interesting that particular points of faith become the determining factor in another person’s salvation.  In this regard, apparently His grace is a bit lacking?  My Bible reads “sufficient for all”, but then I like the King James version, and may not be a member in good standing in your church.  How easily Christians appear to do more than simply accuse other Christians of being mistaken, they develop antagonistic relationships with other churches.  Resentment builds when Christians “convert” from one faith to another.  Pastors are strictly watched to insure they do not preach any truth from the pulpit that may stray from the denominational traditions.  And as a result, very little “new” truth is ever revealed in any church, in any denomination – rather the traditional viewpoints are followed for decades on end.
The most obvious question an Atheist might ask a Christian attempting to witness to him, is simply – why your church?  With a thousand different choices he could make, why yours, why mine, why anyone’s outside of perhaps his own interpretations of scripture?  Assuming he is willing to ignore the 999 choices, upon a close examination of most churches, the follow-up question might be – where are all the members this week?  Has the acceptance of Christianity been reduced to a mere tacit agreement with a denominational viewpoint, membership on the roles of the local church, and a resumption of “normal” life after that?  Do we seek only the intellectual persuasion that our version of truth is the best one on the market, and then become content to see each other “as time, priority, and schedule permits”?  It does not look much like the model of the earliest Christian church.
But then the early Christian church was less organized, and more life altering.  It was more of a movement, than a set of doctrines.  It had a mission each member was committed to living not just remembering.  It required activity, and left little distractions to interrupt it.  Early Christian converts in the time of Peter and Paul, sold every belonging they had, gave everything to the church, and became avid witnesses for Christ.  They literally lived the gospel.  They dedicated their entire existence to the idea that everyone must hear the good news of Jesus Christ and come to know what it means to be truly saved from self, and from the slavery to self, we all suffer from.  Christ threw off the bonds of self service, even to those who continued to wear the chains of physical slavery.  Souls and lives were set free by Him.  To see this message encompass the globe was the burning desire in each new member’s heart.  For it was not just a recitation of scriptures, or an intellectual understanding of the role of the Messiah; rather it was the personal life altering freedom that Christ brought in the age old war against self, and the pain that self causes.  Christ had finally conquered the true enemy of our souls – “I”.  By submission or surrender, we could come to Christ, acknowledge our inability to free ourselves, and accept His gift of real change in our hearts, our minds, and our actions.  This was burning message that early Christians made a life of spreading.  And it spread like wildfire, changing the hearts, minds, and lives of all who encountered it.
Today however, the burning truth and the power of change that Christ can bring to a life, has been lost in the preservation of each denominations fundamental beliefs.  We spend more time attempting to distinguish Catholics, from Baptists, from Lutherans, from Methodists, from Adventists than we do living the fundamental life altering change that Christ brings to the heart.  As organized members of particular faiths it is no longer enough to merely point others to the source of love and change, we must go further and insure they have our unique view of truth as well.  Thus Christians spend more time attempting to proselytize other Christians, than they do sharing the gospel with those who are wholly unfamiliar with the name or power of Jesus Christ.  In this we fail the world, we fail ourselves, and we fail our Lord.  Would that we could reunite under His banner, and focus more on the sharing of Jesus Christ and His ability to change lives, and lead each soul to deeper truth.  If we could simply point people to Christ and let Christ lead them into further truth, even if that does not happen to correspond to our particular faith, we would do more for the Lord and have a larger impact on the world around us.  But alas, our organizations are not structured this way, and appear content how they are.
We lack a fire in our witness, because we lack a fire in our lives.  Our pews are empty because our members feel no compelling need to share what they have accomplished in the effort to witness this week, and need no encouragement for the coming days.  It is because our meager efforts to witness are few and far between, not the consuming passion of our very existence.  Our witnessing efforts tend towards pointing out the sins in others, and warning them of their impending doom – more than showing a genuine tender interest in the life and well-being of another, and providing a living example of what unconditional love looks like.  Our own hearts are unaffected because we have simply not allowed our Savior to affect them.  We cling to our own notions of how to conquer sin and achieve perfection, or worse become completely complacent with our condition in sin.  As such we cannot personally attest to the life altering change that Christ alone can bring.  Our denominations can do nothing to supplement the personal truth of a personal experience when Christ removes a sin that He alone could do from your everyday life.  That kind of experience is not found in a list of fundamental beliefs, it is found in a daily submission to Christ.  We rely on our organizations to find a way to witness to the world.  We are content to allow nameless pastors and evangelists to do the job of pointing the way to Christ, rather than pick of the banner ourselves; and so no personal need, no personal fire, translates to empty pews, and an apathetic crowd.
To begin to think about unity once again, is not to forsake our differences in beliefs – it is to unite around the most fundamental principle of all of Christianity – that Jesus Christ alone can save us from ourselves, our evil, and our pain.  In this my denomination does not matter.  In this my other ideas are not quite as important.  It is simple logic to assume that not all 1000 Christian churches can be 100% correct about every competing doctrine or ideology.  It stands to reason, that it might be me, or you, who is mistaken about a point of fact or two.  So why not simply point people to Christ and allow Christ the freedom to show us where we are wrong in His time, in His manner, and using the methods He wishes?  Why not concentrate less about the persuasion of doctrine and more on the surrender of a life to Christ.  This alone will restore the power of the gospel.  This alone is a solution the world is craving, needs, wants, and would listen to as they see it lived out in an actual life of a Christian.  Our lives can once again become our witness, not through our organization, but through our personal existence.
Having restored a passion for Christ in each of us, it leads us to crave the company of others.  Not only those who need to hear the hope and truth of change that only Christ can bring, but those who have already heard it, and now are living it out like we are.  We begin to want that communion with each other.  We begin to realize those with differing skills can fill differing roles in the body of Christ.  We begin to see the value in each member in the pew, and develop a passion to be involved in that person’s life.  This is the kind of renewal we need in each church regardless of its particular version of doctrines.  To mimic the ministry of Christ by intensely loving others first, all others, even those still in sin, even those we think above or below ourselves – literally everyone – this was His commission to those who call on His name.  If we are to call ourselves Christians, then we must mimic our Lord and LOVE first.  We can worry about the teaching MUCH later in the equation.  Let us restore love as our first passion, and bring back the tired to our churches once again.  Let us live a witness rather than simply talk about what might be, or what could be – rather let us talk about what is.  Let us make the love of Christ a reality in our own lives, and kill the “I” once and for all.  Perhaps then Christian unity might have a better shot at reality than it has thus far.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Looking the Part ...

Would you go to church in shorts and a tee shirt?  Would you consider it if it were a cleaning day or work bee?  How about to a game night at church?  Does it matter “when” you wear these clothing items, or for what purpose we get together in a church to accomplish?  Despite a general trend towards dressing more casual in America, most Christians would still hesitate on wearing shorts to a formal morning worship service in church.  Those that might consider it are decidedly younger in age than our more senior church goers.  So does how we dress matter anymore, or is it a non-issue?

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness” … although this is found nowhere in scripture, it is often cited as a reason to dress appropriately in church.  But then, what is “appropriately”?  In the days of Moses, when God sought to talk directly with His people, He asked them to refrain from sex with their spouses for 3 days.  He asked them to clean themselves and their clothing.  They made an effort to prepare, and then approached Him at the foot of Mt. Sinai.  This was a singular event, and there was no prescription recorded mandating everyone put on their best clothing, or buy new clothing – only to insure that what they had was clean.  Perhaps more important, that they themselves were clean.  After all, “to obey, is better than sacrifice” and “to listen, is better than the fat of Rams”.  God always tried to direct Israel to examine their hearts when approaching Him, more so than their exterior.  Nonetheless, modern Christians have adopted a tradition of wearing their “finery” to church on a weekly basis.
So how good is too good?  I could wear my $200 suit from Burlington, or my $1500 Joseph Aboud suit from Nordstroms, or my $5000 Armani from NYC.  Does it matter what I spent on my suit when dressing for church, or where my suit comes from, or how extravagant it looks?  I could wear my $40 leather belt on my pants, or choose to wear my $400 crocodile Italian belt instead.  Does it matter if I have these choices and choose to wear the less expensive items?  The same could be said for a pair of leather loafers – one pair is $60, one is $600.  And none of this touches my watch where the numbers get really crazy.  My Seiko, or my Rolex, or my Bvlgari – which do I believe most honors God in His worship service this week.  Often we pick on women and how they fuss over their clothing and outfits, and seem to struggle with make-up and jewelry.  But a wealthy man can easily wear clothing and accessories that would outstrip a typical women in cost in no time.  It is not just women, who need to examine what they wear and why, it is also men.
And what about those who have no choice, or very limited choices?  A young man enters the sanctuary wearing jeans, tennis shoes, and a cut-off tee shirt; our first thought – is he too poor to dress up, or was this done by choice?  Was he too lazy to at least clean up his clothing, or perhaps does he live on the street and is only looking to duck the heat of the sun outside for a while before wandering on his way?  Our thoughts center on his ability to choose, and in so doing we reveal more about us than about him.  There was a young man who wore his work clothing to the sanctuary every week.  He worshipped our God in humility, read scriptures with power and authority, and taught those who would listen in truth they had never even considered before.  But his clothing was never new, and never varied.  He kept it clean, but he wore it to work every day, on trips, in the sun, He may have even slept in it.  His name was Jesus Christ.  At His death, his tormentors cast lots for the only thing He owned, His single outfit of clothing.
Jesus had no change of clothes to wear to worship on Sabbath at the local synagogue or even the Temple in Jerusalem.  He had only the clothing he wore every day.  He could have owned more, but He chose to be poor and keep nothing but what He needed instead.  And apart from His death, His clothing is rarely if ever mentioned in His ministry.  No one cared what He was wearing when He taught, healed, or showed the magnitude of His love for us.  And He never made a single comment about what someone else was wearing when He encountered them.  “Clothing” was not a barrier for access to Christ.  Instead it was completely irrelevant.  What Christ wore never prevented Him from reaching a lost soul, working when it was required. and worshipping as He was able.  His clothing was practical, functional, and not extravagant.  His disciples never mentioned their own clothing throughout their subsequent ministries.  The only time clothing was mentioned after His ascension, was in relation to new converts selling everything they owned and giving the proceeds to the ministry.  It appears our early Christian ancestors modeled themselves more like Christ and kept no spare outfits to set aside for worship services.
So how about just showing up in a bikini?  Why bother with clothing at all?  Perhaps again here our Lord could serve as our role model.  His clothing was not only clean and maintained as He was able, it was practical and modest.  Again throughout scripture it was not the goal our Lord to become the sex symbol of His day.  He made no effort to show off His pecks, or six pack abs.  He did not keep his robe cut short in order to show a well-developed leg from all the walking He did in His time.  Nor does scripture speak of Mary, Martha, or Mary Magdalene ever attempting to wear seductive clothing in His presence.  Clothing again was a non-issue, the concept of dressing to seduce would have been the farthest thing on His mind, or on the minds of those who followed Him.  Seduction would be confined to the auspices of marriage, not designed for public display whether at recreation, or in worship.  When a man leaves his shirt undone, or chooses highly tight fitting clothing to display the muscles he works hard to maintain he sends a message – “look at me”.  When a woman wear skirts cut high, or slit high; or wears a top with a low cut and a push up bra – she too sends the message – “look at me”.  As Christians, do we really want to send this message, particularly when as Christians we know just how far from His perfection we really are?  Perhaps our clothing would be better suited to draw no attention and send the message – “look at Him”.
And what of our ornaments?  To wear jewelry or not continues to be a question long debated in our congregations.  The rational to wear jewelry is that makes us look more attractive, and gives us a sense of being more “complete” in our overall outfits.  The rational not to wear jewelry is that causes too much attention to ourselves, does not scream humility, and scripture seems to proscribe not wearing items “that the heathen wear”.  But our rational is wrong.  Neither line of thinking is the right one.  Jewelry is not inherently evil, if it were we would not be receiving a jeweled crown in heaven.  Diamonds, gold, and precious stones are not the problem – we are.  “I” am my own worst enemy in the spiritual warfare of my life.  It is my lust for more, my desire to out-do, my need for attention, and my pride in my accomplishments that so often causes me to reason that wearing my $40,000 watch is somehow a good idea in church.  When in truth, there is no “good” reason to wear it there.  Further, there is probably no “good” reason to even own it.  Even if I am wealthy, the money could be better spent on those in need, than on “me” – the enemy of my soul.  Jewelry does not complete our outfits any more than it completes us as individuals.  It is window dressing in a vain attempt to distract from the gaping hole in our conscience that allows others to suffer while I continue to accrue my earthly kingdom.  In short, it is me putting my treasure in the completely wrong place.  Again it says more about me than I would care to admit.
So back to our original question, what is appropriate to wear to worship?  I believe the answer is found in the ministry of Christ.  I should wear clothing that is clean wherever possible, practical, modest, and comfortable for me to meet, and assist others as they have need.  My shoes should be comfortable to walk in, as rarely do I find those in need within only a few steps of where I am today.  My clothing should not alienate people, or make them feel uncomfortable to be around me, as they cannot match my ability to dress well.  In short, it should not be extravagant, immodest, or designed in a way to promote me at all.  My clothing should become a non-issue in my encounters with others, and being able to meet their needs becomes the more important part of the equation, than what I look like when I do it.  Were the church to adopt this pragmatic approach, the debates over what is modest go away.  The debates over jeans, shorts, tee shirts, cut offs, and expensive accessories go away.  Humility becomes the guiding principle, and service the overriding goal.
Our sanctuaries are nothing but brick and mortar, our members are the value in our churches.  “When two or three are gathered together in my name” says the Lord, this is where church is being held.  It happens at the beach, in a restaurant, in a hospital bedside, in a mall, almost anywhere where believers get together and make ministry and Christ their first priority.  Dressing up in order to accommodate a traditional time, in a traditional place, to keep traditional standards is about honoring man made traditions of the past – not about honoring God or the ministry or example of Christ.  Humility, modesty, cleanliness as we are able, practicality; these are the hallmarks we should strive to achieve, remembering that service to others “is” the ministry of our Lord.  Attention to self has nothing to do with Him.  I long for a day when clothing is no longer any concern of the people of the Lord, for they are known for their love and unfailing interest in the needs of those they encounter.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ordaining Women ...

Separate but equal?  How can we divide people based on an arbitrary criterion and simultaneously expect equality post division?  The Supreme Court of the United States finally came to see the wisdom of eliminating arbitrary divisions in order to affect equality.  But the church seems reluctant to do the same.  The church seems content to segregate based on sex, and sometimes even on race, or age, yet continue to expect equality in the work of Christ.  After all, the Bible does seem to identify certain roles for men that it does not seem to state women should perform.  This has led some modern folks to decry the scriptures as based in the prejudice of the day, and the prevailing sexism in Middle Eastern cultures.  But if we are to accept the Bible as our cornerstone of faith, unaltered, and speaking only truth, what should be our position on equality in the church.  Is it OK then to ordain women to the ministry of Christ?

To begin I think it important to understand how the word of God comes to mankind.  In the beginning, God Himself walked in the Garden of Eden with both Adam and Eve.  He spoke to them both.  He treated them both as His children.  He did not choose to speak alone, and only with Adam, trusting Adam to relay His messages of love to Eve.  Instead He showed Eve the same respect He showed Adam, and the same love.  Later, God spoke through Miriam, the sister of Moses, as His prophetess.  Moses already had direct communication with God.  Aaron, his brother, was already God’s high priest in the Sanctuary services.  Yet despite both of these men in elevated positions, God still spoke His prophecies through the mouth of their sister Miriam.  One could argue that Moses was the leader of the people, and Aaron the leader of the ministry, yet Miriam’s role was no less important to the people of the Lord.  And Miriam was not the last woman to serve the Lord in the role of prophet to His people.  Others would follow.
In the days of Christ, there is much focus on His disciples and work they performed.  But when the friends of Christ are mentioned there were at least three – Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.  Two of the closest friends of Christ were women.  He counted them as His friends.  In addition to saving Mary Magdalene from stoning, He also accepted her gift in washing His feet, and seemed to take a genuine interest in her life.  Christ speaks openly to the woman at the well.  He rewards the sickly woman who touches merely the hem of His garment.  He compliments and blesses the widow who gives her last two mites into the offering – elevating her sacrifice ABOVE all the rich Pharisees who gave much money into the coffers.  Christ heals the daughter of the Roman Centurion and holds out this Gentile’s faith as an example for the Israelites to aspire to.  Christ showed through His own life and ministry that the lives of women were as important to Him as the lives of men.  He spoke with women directly, not through their husbands or other intermediaries.  He held direct conversations with women.
The counsel given to men regarding their wives, was to love their own wives more than they love themselves.  Were men to honor this counsel, the problems in marriages would all but disappear.  Women are NO less important to God, or to His work, than are men.  So assuming that God values each of us the same, does not mean He intends each of us to be exactly alike.  There are some men who are excellent speakers, and could make excellent evangelists.  Other men, not so much.  We tend to gravitate towards those who appear endowed with the gift of evangelism, and away from those who are not so blessed.  It is the gift of God’s Spirit that determines our ability to fill a role in His church, not our age, not our sex, not our race, nor our education and seemingly natural abilities.
“And a little child shall lead them.”  How often have we quoted the words of Christ, and ascribed them to some cute thing done by one of our kids.  But to consider that a little child would lead us full time appears to stretch our credibility.  Yet Samuel was called to God at the age of seven.  Christ taught the most learned men of His time, at the young age of 12.  Ellen White began a course to God that started in her teens.  All of these past servants of God were not called in their old age, but in their youth, even when youth was not such a prized commodity.  Being 12 years old would not afford Christ much respect in a community of older learned Rabbis who spent lifetimes acquiring wisdom – yet they were so intent to hear His words they stayed for 3 days listening to Him teach.  What was surely a baby in their eyes, had such a clear understanding the love behind their scriptures, that ALL were captivated by His teachings.  A 12 year old.
We ignore our youth as being too inexperienced to really lead us on a sustained basis.  We cynically disregard their idealism as being not based in the real world.  Similarly we set aside the wisdom of our much older folks as being “dated” and based on a life in the past that no longer represents reality.  We look at the differences of people from other races and cultures and decide it is better to “allow” them to meet and group together and worship however they like, rather than attempt to integrate “how” they worship into our own services.  Then we attempt to develop ministries to meet the unique needs of groups of people based on age, or sex, or race – thinking that meeting unique needs can only be done through segregation.  But this was not the approach Christ took.
Christ so valued children, He stopped what He was doing and took time to minister to them first.  Christ so valued women, He spoke directly with them, and was found in their company – even the ones whose reputations were not so stellar.  Christ so valued those of different races and cultures that He personally took time to heal the daughter of the Roman oppressor, and accepted help from the Foreigner who bore His cross.  Christ instructed Peter through a dream that Peter would understand. that the Gospel was meant for all, not for just the Jewish people.  Age was not a barrier to Christ.  Sex was not something to be segregated against.  Race was no obstacle.  Culture was no wall to Him.  Literally ALL were included in His work, His love, and His ministry.
“Where two or three are gathered together” – note He did not specify two or three men, or two or three people of certain ages, cultures, races, or even doctrinal persuasions.  He said two or three who gather in the name of Christ.  Our church was to include all.  The gifts of the Spirit were to include all.  The Holy Spirit was not confined to merely men of a certain age, and a certain race.  Instead the Holy Spirit was poured out on ANY who would accept the gospel and this gift.  Any who were willing to serve the cause of Christ were eligible for this outpouring.  And ALL were blessed as the Spirit saw fit, and the church had need.  Not everyone was called to be a preacher, or teacher, or evangelist – but it did not matter who was called to these tasks.  Whether young or old, men or women, Jew or Gentile – all served, and many died martyrs of persecution for their faith.  The enemies of God did not spare women, children, or foreigners – they killed any who claimed the name of Jesus.
In our day, we limit God, by limiting through our own expectations “how” and to “whom” His gifts should be poured out.  Instead of accepting whoever He chooses, we disregard those who do not come in the appropriate packages; according to the standards we have setup.  The Pharisees missed the Messiah in doing a similar approach.  Our church should cast down the barriers of prejudice based in human tradition and human wisdom, and allow the Spirit to determine where and to whom He will pour out His blessings upon.  If a woman is called to preach, teach, or evangelize – then praise God she is willing to serve, and He is willing to reveal Himself to us through her.  She should not be denied ordination based on our collective “wisdom”.  It is our job, our duty, to accept the will of the Spirit, not to try to define it.  It is our job to accept the wisdom of Christ, not to try to override it based on our own ideas.  If God calls a seven year old girl, from an Inuit culture in northern Alaska, with different traditions and cultures than our own, to be our next evangelist – are we to supersede the ideas of God in this regard?  God forbid we refuse His guidance.
And while we should not deny God His ability to pour out the gifts our church needs on whomever He sees fit, we should also avoid conferring roles to those who are clearly NOT called to serve in the capacity they desire.  We may think ourselves fit to serve in a particular capacity, but if the Holy Spirit does not bless our efforts in this regard, it may be that we deceive ourselves as to where we are actually supposed to serve.  We should not ordain a woman simply because she is a woman, no more than we ordain a man simply because he is a man.  We should instead look for the influences of the Spirit, and the lives and skills that have been clearly touched by God and seek to honor His will in so doing.  We should include everyone in our desire to serve God, disallowing no one based on our preconceptions, nor forcing anyone into a role they are not fit to hold.  We should in a word – follow the will of God, not attempt to define it.  Were the church to do this, the questions of women and ordination would completely disappear.  Children would lead more often than they do.  The aged and elders would carry the respect they deserve.  And the cultural diversity found in the world, would be reflected in our worship services and ALL would benefit as a result.  In short, the church would become UNITED under the banner of Christ, without any form of segregation based on any criterion.  This is what Christ intended for His church; perhaps we could forsake our own wisdom and get back to His plans.