Exploring the interplay between ortho-doxy (right belief) and ortho-praxy (right action)...

...and encouraging a life where these intertwined thoughts and deeds simply happen... by default.

21 August 2006

missing church

What does the phrase 'missing church' mean to you?

Poor attendance? Vacation? Sickness? Sleeping in?

Perhaps we're all aware of the pressure to 'make it on Sunday.' Various methods are employed to encourage people to show up. In some situations, if you don't show up for a few weeks, you'll get a phone call from someone who - usually after a bit of small talk - will mention that they 'haven't seen you' for a while.

Before I say any more, let me be very clear about how I feel about Sunday morning. I believe that the followers of Jesus after Pentecost gradually adopted Sunday as a time to meet together. It seems that they called Sunday 'the Lord's day.' I agree with the writer of Hebrews that we shouldn't forsake the' assembling of ourselves together.' (Heb. 10:25) I am enthusiastically in support of Sunday meetings so that we can - as the writer of Hebrews instructs precisely before the above passage - 'stir up love and good works' and also remember and celebrate our Lord's resurrection. I aim to always meet on this day and in this way.

While I don't mind people being encouraged to make meeting on Sunday a priority, I am nervous about the way this is often done. I fear that in our genuine (but possibly unhelpful?) attempts at 'getting people along,' we may be in danger of missing the point. For example, I wonder if we can mistakenly assume that a person's regularity of attendance is an indicator of their walk with God. If they show up regularly, then things must be fine, and if they've missed a few weeks, they might be struggling with their faith. I've heard such comments many times. All the time, I'm wondering, "Yeah, but what about the people that are regular attendees that might be struggling?"

Sunday Best?
For many, Sunday morning is a great time of catching up with friends, celebrating God in song and receiving useful Bible teaching. But let's not forget how others can see it. A routine trip to a building, making their way to their seat (if they are greeted, it is impersonal and brief), singing songs that make them feel guilty for not being 'happy all the day', sitting through a monologue that doesn't relate to where they are at but still manages to leave them feeling discouraged about their relationship with God, briefly hanging around afterward in case someone may talk to them or invite them to lunch or something else, and heading to their car wondering how they will motivate themselves to go through the same routine next week. And that is an example of how a Christian may feel. What about someone who doesn't have a relationship with God?

I'm not suggesting we do away with Sunday mornings. I am suggesting that we work hard to make them as relevant to reality as possible, and that we realise that what we 'do' on Sunday morning will never be able to meet all of our needs as the 'church.'

It seems to me that failing to understand why we meet, combined with a misunderstanding of what 'church' is, creates a dangerous situation. Not a small, harmless one, but one that can either contribute to someone being hurt, or someones hurts not being known or cared for. Let me offer some thoughts about these two ingredients.

'What' Is The Church?
This is the wrong question to start with. It's not a question of 'what' the church is, but 'who' the church is! 'Church' is not the building you go to to meet with other Christians, a street address, or a block of time on Sunday. The Church consists of people who recognise Jesus as Lord. This understanding is not new, but we still ask each other the same confused types of questions that reflect the mistaken view of Church, such as "how was 'church' this morning" or "where do you go to 'church' at?" or "what is your 'church' like?" Instead, we should ask, "Who do you church with?" I think it would be a great excercise for us to not call Sunday 'church.' I'm not saying make Sunday less important! I'm just suggesting that it might be helpful in reminding us that 'church' is not some 'thing' that we do on Sunday mornings, but rather it is people who follow Jesus every day of their lives - and people who happen to meet together on Sunday.

Why Do We Meet?
This is a great question, and deserves a great answer. More and more I'm seeing that there is not really any biblical doctrine or instructions for what we are supposed to 'do' when we meet. The commands that are given in the New Testament are the kind that we can follow any time, any where. So what do we 'do' when we meet? Well, I think Hebrews 10:24-25 provide a nice summary statement.

"And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching."

This, of course, is just one passage in the New Testament. As you can see, the time, place and style of the meeting is not the point here. It is exhorting each other to love and good works that is called for. We need each other. We really do. If we are to live lives that are counter-cultural, we are going to need help. We're going to need more than a few songs, a sermon and a cup of coffee.

That is why we must never stop meeting together! That is why our songs must be real, and reflect that life (yes, even the Christian version) is not a smiles-only club. That is why teaching must be more than a Sunday sermon, and must be interpersonal, challenging and sharpening. That is why our relationships must go beyond 'catching up at church' and develop to the point where we not only allow others to sharpen us, but we actually look for it. That is why 'church' is not a place or a time, but a people. That is why so many Christians are 'missing church', but still attend a building and service each week.

May we truly be committed to Christ and to each other.

May we stop expecting all our needs to be met on Sunday.

May we see the difference between the Sunday meeting and church.

May we exhort one another to love and good works.

May we develop our relationships to where we can give and recieve such instruction from each other.

May we stop 'doing' and 'going to' church, and start 'being' the Church.


7 August 2006

biblical patience - quickly!

I want to get the most out of the Scriptures, don't you?

The obvious, glaring question is HOW do we do this? How might we read, understand, meditate on, grasp, learn and grow in the right way?

The Bible - as we have it (which in our time is not at all in universal form or content - but that's a whole diffferent topic altogether) - was completed (roughly speaking) by the turn of the 2nd century. Since then - and increasingly in the last 50 years or so - people have employed many, many techniques and methods for engaging the text. Much of this is wonderful, I think. Unfortunately, we we humans seem to be quite prone to misusing, distorting and destroying anything good (sex, food/drink, authority, relationships, money, etc.). I wish this didn't apply to Bible study as well, but I'm afraid that it can happen and does. Whether it's chanting or reading portions of Scripture while 'listening' for special messages from God, breathing slowly, finding the right posture, or whatever, these concerns don't have much (or anything at all) to do with rightly engaging the Scripture.

Now, I don't have time - nor would I think it my responsibility or within my ability - to systematically identify and de-bunk every technique that you or I might think needs identifying and de-bunking. I will, however, pass on a few helpful (and I believe essential) principles I've picked up from others that we must keep in mind if we wish to read our Scriptures for all they're worth - which I believe to be infinitely more than we may realise.

First Things First?
The first thing is of first importance. More and more, I hear the same question being asked over and over again. The problem isn't this questions itself, but the importance and immediate priority it is given. It is the question of 'what does it mean to ME?' Given our increasingly individualised culture in western nations, I'm not surprised by this. Now, let me be clear. I believe that 'it' has quite a lot to say to 'me' and you. The problem comes when this is our first and primary question we ask of the text.

Our initial task in reading the Scriptures is to attempt to perceive what the author is saying to the audience, and how they might have received it. By this, I mean (taking the New Testament epistle of Paul to Philemon as an example) what is the Apostle Paul saying to Philemon. Sure, 'I' can learn a great deal from what Paul is saying to Philemon, but Paul is not writing to Dale in New Zealand in the 21st century. Our question is what did (in this case) Paul mean? Tom Wright has called this seeking to 'think Paul's thoughts after him.' Paul was not thinking about me.

Our Place in The Story
With this in mind, we dig deeper. But not too deep too quickly. The Bible is full of potentially confusing commands, exhortations and instructions. This is why, secondly, we need to familiarise - and re-familiarise - ourselves with the entire unfolding narrative of Scripture. Tom Wright again has been very helpful for me in this regard. He has popularised a 4-act analogy regarding the story of God's interaction with the world. Within this analogy, we live between the Apostles and chapters 21 & 22 of Revelation, and find ourselves with roles to play in God's fourth act. Our task is not to repeat the first three acts, but to discover how are roles are to be 'acted out' so as to 'fit' with what has come before and to point toward what is coming - namely God's ultimate renewal of Heaven and Earth.

If we don't know how the story begins, develops, expands and ultimately ends, we are all the more likely to 'act' in a way that is inconsistent with it. Mark Strom has described this as the need to be 'patient' with the Scriptures, lest we distort them in our application (i.e. by taking something in the Scriptures and doing it when we ought not to, not doing it when we ought to or doing it in the wrong way than was intended). The old-new covenant distinction is perhaps one of the most common points of confusion that I know of regarding application for us today - again, another topic altogether.

Mark has articulated his 'big-small-big' method for reading which I find very helpful. First, we read the passage with the 'big story' in mind. Second, we observe details in the passage, looking for the flow and looking outward to the expanded context. Finally, we summarise the small picture and locate it's place in the big picture, clarifying the impact of the gospel and living what we find. I think the key difference is that in this model, the personal application for 'me' is found only in the 'big story' and only after we consider the implications of the Gospel.

...'For We Know In Part'...
This 'patience' means that we may have to go through periods of time where we don't have every text nailed down - as if any of us do anyway! We shouldn't be surprised when we read a passage looking for answers and instead get more questions! This happens to me all the time. I find myself flicking all over the Scriptures and looking up various things that pertain (at least that I think pertain!) to where I've begun. Naturally, I've both learned and un-learned a few things this way!

However, if this is the only way we learn or un-learn from the Scriptures, then we are in great danger. Thirdly, and lastly, I want to share the principle of community. The Bible is a community book. Originally written in community. Originally read in community. Originally worked out in community. Studying the Bible privately is a privilege that we enjoy like few other of the many generations that have come before us (hand copies only until the printing press!). We should enjoy this privilege, but not gorge ourselves on it. We need others around us (and around the world, both living and deceased) to sharpen whatever clever ideas we think we might get from our private study. Of course, with the internet, you can always find someone to agree with you (on that note, you can also quite easily find someone who disagrees, but it's much more comforting to only read people who agree with us!) but don't let that stop you from benefiting from the study of others.


Original writer, original audience - knowing the Story and our place in it - and engaging the Scriptures while being guided by communitiy. I think these principles will serve us well as we attempt to read Scripture for all it's worth - at its worth is great! It will take patience, but like a good meal is much more satisfying than fast food - in more ways than one - so is reading the Scriptures as they were intended.


1 August 2006

the bible, the whole bible and nothing but the bible

I've said it before and I'll say it again: There's absolutely no book in the world like the Bible.

The Bible reveals the great story of God's creation and how He interacts with it. The Bible showcases an incredibly diverse number or groups and individuals, and shows how they responded to the interaction of God. Most importantly, however, the Bible tells us about the Word - that is, the Word made flesh - Jesus. We get to see Him in full flavour, in surround sound, in real history and in unmatched splendor.

Unfortunately, the Bible is also incredibly misunderstood. All one has to do is briefly explore the massive number of Bible-related internet websites (which all claim to be 'biblical' in their own unique, special ways) to see just how radically different people take various passages and themes from the same book. They can't all be right can they? I mean, at least not when they say contradicting things about the exact same topic, right?

Before I say any more, let me say that I am becoming increasingly more aware of the fact that I'm on a journey in my understanding of the Bible. Realise it or not, we all are. This makes some people uncomfortable. Some grow nervous with such talk, because they feel it is leaning towards uncertainty and instability concerning the the Bible. I understand why they might feel this way, but it seems to me that while the Bible will no doubt remain intact itself, our understanding of it's content and message is quite another thing and will always (I might even say must always) be flexible. Do we really believe that the message is living? I do, and while I don't think for a minute that God changes, I still insist that the idea that we simply don't understand Him or His ways is a thoroughly 'biblical' one (1 Corinthians 1 & 13 and Isaiah 40 & 64 are good chapters to read if you ever think you've got God cornered.)

Now that I've said that, I want to pass along some advice that I've taken on board regarding reading the Bible.

First, let me introduce you to a term. It's a term called pre-texting (of course, some of you will be quite familiar with both the term and examples of it's use). In a basic sense, pre-texting happens when someone quotes a verse (or part of a verse) to support a point or belief they are trying to explain. The problem isn't quoting the verses themselves, it's when the verses are used in a way other than they were intended to be. Here's a common example of a mis-use of a verse (text). I once talked to a street 'preacher' who was telling anyone who would listen that true Christians don't sin. He was quoting from 1 John 3:6, which says, "Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him." Seems pretty open and shut, doesn't it? Well, a verse that comes before that one (1 John 1:8) seems to cloud the issue - "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." So if I admit that I sin, I don't know Him, and if I say I have no sin, then I'm a liar? Well, it's a good thing there are more verses in 1 John than these two.

1 John is widely believed to be written in response to an early (late 1st or early 2nd century) group of false teachers (in this case, Gnostics) that believed that Jesus didn't have a real flesh and blood body, and that He wasn't eternal or 'from the beginning.' They basically ignored physical sin, because to them all that really 'mattered' was not the realm of matter, but the realm of ideas, or the spiritual realm (look up 'dualism' and then thank Plato for many such misunderstandings of our universe - many of which still cloud our thinking, and yes can distort our interpretations of Scripture). It seems that 1 John seems to be strongly warning against taking seriously the idea that sin wasn't serious. See how the text comes alive when you read chapter 1 (especially the first 3 verses) with this understanding!

As you can see, the problem is not quoting the Bible, but quoting it out of it's proper context. First, we must know the immediate context (surrounding verses), then the context of the section of the book (If you didn't notice, I intentionally referred to entire chapters above - not just to verses. In a sense, that is still pre-texting, but in a safer way.), then the book itself, etc. Even this is not enough. We need to be mindful of both the textual context and the historical context. That means sometimes we have to study history to better understand the Bible. That also means that we don't always have the right interpretation of the Bible even when it may feel like we do. This is not bad news, or an attempt to scare or discourage you from studying the Bible, but rather quite the opposite. Join with us on the journey! It's exciting! Grow! Think! Learn! Ask questions! Dig for the answers! Own your beliefs! Don't just recite what you learn from others!

At last, here's the simple advice I'll pass on. Read the Bible in large chunks. As respected biblical scholar and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright has said, “Get a sense of the sweep of the narrative. God gave us this book not as bite-sized little chunks, but as a large thing to open and broaden and develop our minds.” I couldn't agree more. Perhaps embracing this ethic of reading larger portions can help us to quote the Bible more faithfully, and not with cheap pre-texting games, where 'my verse is better than your verse'. I also think we possibly underestimate the value of reading the Bible in community, where our interpretations don't go recklessly unchecked, but are able to be sharpened and strengthened by those around us. This, in essense, was what happened (and still happens) when Jews gathered in Synogogues to study. May we in the Church develop and embrace a similar ethic?

We have the opportunity of a lifetime, and it will take a lifetime. We have the thrilling task and calling to join God in His story. We need to know our place in it. As we familiarise ourselves with history and His-story within it, we link arms with each other as we grow in understanding and we also link arms with the long line of Saints before us who thought, prayed, studied, served, taught, sacrificed and struggled to live their part in the Story. It's our turn.