Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Religion and Culture: what does "Bible-believing" really mean?

Bible-believing to the core!
oday I’m trying to engage a “big-picture” direction in my writing. Essentially, I want to frame out a new book proposal (hopefully a 2014 publication), so the idea is to avoid thinking about several looming 500-word news and magazine deadlines and think “200-pages” for the next few hours.
Even books, however – maybe especially books – need to start with some spotlight of specific focus, and maybe this post will launch me on my way.
“BIBLE-BELIEVING” doesn’t belong to the fundamentalists! There’s a turn of phrase that I’ve heard (a lot) recently that – I believe – illustrates where I’m headed. This phrase crops up in conversation, in facebook posts, in blog entries… even in news articles. And it annoys me almost every time I hear it! It goes like this: “I attend a Bible-believing church.”
Often implied in a statement like that – especially when it’s, “NOW I attend a Bible-believing church” – is the assumption/judgement that other churches are not Bible-believing. Really?
More accurately, when someone claims that, “We’re a Bible-believing church,” what they really mean is this: “We’re the church/denomination that interprets the Bible correctly. If your theology/doctrine/understanding/conclusions are not the same as ours, then you obviously don’t really believe in the Bible.”
CONTROVERSY: Similarly, I’ve run into a lot of proof-texting recently. This is where a passage of scripture is used to prove a point, to advance an agenda, or to condemn someone else. The passage is employed in much the same way as a sledge-hammer, and wielded without regard to context. With proof-texting it’s possible to find a verse from the Bible to back up pretty much any position.
Then, when there’s some discussion, someone will say, ”If you don’t take the Bible literally in every quotation, then you don’t really believe the Bible!”
WHERE DO I STAND? First off, I’ll recommend chapter five of my new book, “10 Life-Charged Words.” The title of the chapter is “Scripture.” After you read the chapter you’ll know beyond question that I believe and live into the authority of scripture, and that scripture is a constant charge of life because, as John explains so beautifully, God’s Word comes together perfectly in Jesus:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory,the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
I don’t believe the Bible reads best as some handy-reference text – like the 3rd Grade Math book – with no-further-questions-allowed answers listed in an appendix. In my experience the Bible tends to pose more questions, and it also offers answers far outside the scope of our narrow questions.
I also believe that we are too easily satisfied with “end of discussion” answers, and that too many religious people manipulate the scriptures to more tidily fit their own narrow frame of understanding and imagination.
And, now that we’re talking about it, here are just a few of my personal observations about the Bible:
  • It was written over a span of several thousand years.
  • It was authored by literally scores of different people.
  • It was memorized, repeated by word-of-mouth, translated, lost, rediscovered.
  • Translators have added punctuation, spaced paragraphs, debated the meaning of words fallen out of use.
  • It was inspired by God, yes, but it is constantly poured through the filters of culture, politics, personality, language, practice, intellectual capability, education, life circumstance etc…
  • Today (as each of the past 2,000 years) the Bible is being read by people who understand through the added filters of contemporary culture, language, political pressure, denominational preference, life experience and more…
  • Literally thousands of commentaries and biblical encyclopedias suggest hundreds of variations and layers of meaning.
Consequently, if we require answers that add up to a tightly codified religious law (think “Taliban”), then at least 90% of everyone else always has to be wrong! Really?
NARRATIVE: The Bible – in my ever-growing understanding – is the narrative history of how a people worked out their hesitant and inconsistent relationship to the fact of The Living God. The New Testament portion is the story of Jesus (God in the flesh), and how Christ offers a New And Living Way, and how the first Followers of the Way of Jesus began to understand that message and share it with one-another and the world.
The Bible is full with stories of success and failure, of beauty and horror, of moving toward the God of Love, and of missing the truth entirely. The Bible stories are quite honest about the constant tension between the God who loves the Children of Israel and their constant and repeated tragic mistakes.
  • Does God, for example, really want Abraham to offer a human sacrifice (just like the surrounding cultures)? Or does God demonstrate clearly that The One True God sees that kind of worship as entirely unacceptable?
  • Is the contrast between stoning misbehaving children to death (Old Testament) and Christ’s, “Let me take everyone’s punishment on myself…” an inconsistency, or is Christ the definitive moment in a centuries long story of discovering exactly how God chooses to relate to his children?
Questions. Always with the questions!
God speaks with power and authority through the Holy Bible. We – on the other hand – often speak via the narrow-spirited choke-hold of our personal preferences and our sad need to validate ourselves by condemning anything we don’t readily understand.
BOTTOM LINE: The Bible raises a lot of questions, and they’re not going away. But neither is Jesus going away, and Jesus is the answer to every question we can ever have….
… But let’s resist the temptation to try to tie the Lord’s hands by demanding (and then manufacturing) open and shut answers that are 100% acceptable to us.
Instead, let’s introduce the world to the Jesus who loves and accepts and redeems, and let’s saturate ourselves with God’s Word, and let’s get over the kind of arrogance (or uncertainty) that tempts us to say, “NOW I attend a Bible-believing church.”

Monday, July 30, 2012

"Life-O-Meter" (BTW - yours should be humming)

Rebekah doing “The Children’s Moment” at the 8:30 Praise Service yesterday morning.
Today’s “lead” photo may be lacking in mega-pixels and focus, but it’s exactly right for my Monday post because it’s all about vibrant life; and that’s a story that never gets old.

I’ve been traveling a lot recently, and I mentioned last week how nourishing it is to get back to my faith community. Well, yesterday was no exception, especially when I watch Rebekah and Tim interact with the children. There’s nothing “lofty” or “rarefied” or “distant” about the pastoral staff at our church.
  • Some preachers confuse “dignified” with “stuffy,” “pompous,” and “inaccessible.” Not so around First Brandon.
OLYMPICS: The “Children’s Moment” in the photograph focused on the Olympic Games, and Rebekah had the children repeat the following words from Second Timothy: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Now there is a crown waiting for me. It is given to those who are right with God.”

Fun with VBS!
It’s been a big week with the children around fpcBrandon. 120 kids attended Vacation Bible School, and 60 volunteers made sure they had a wonderful learning experience. An astounding 21 of those volunteers were members of our youth group.

It was one of those times where the “buzz” I talk about at our church grew into a discernible rumble. The amplitude of vibrant life ramps up a notch or two during VBS. But then there always seems to be this residual holdover. If the Life-O-Meter registers at “5″ before VBS, and goes up to an “8″ due to 120 kids going nuts about Jesus, then it probably only falls back to a “6″ when it’s all done.

Don’t try to follow my math! It’s all illustrative prose, but the principle is sound. You see, I believe that community life is cumulative. It’s been building around here – in my experience, close to 16 years. Life stacks up on life and it doesn’t let go.

closing program for VBS
“NO-BRAINER!” What amazes me is how surprised so many people are when they encounter life. Our church – First Presbyterian of Brandon, FL– should not be the exception; it should be the norm! There is no reason for any faith community to do anything other than to literally pulsate with the life-charged energy that comes from the living presence of Jesus.
  • I like that. So I’ll repeat it. There is no reason for any faith community to do anything other than to literally pulsate with the life-charged energy that comes from the living presence of Jesus.
The children certainly help. But kids are as much of a symptom as they are a cause.
However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. (Acts 20:24)

Friday, July 27, 2012

Crossing the Line: Chick-Fil-A and our responsibility to protect opinion

Someone is crossing the line of separation between state and religion, and it’s not Chick-Fil-A.

or many years, the mainstay of my public writing was “Opinion.” My weekly “Op-Ed” column for the Tampa Tribune ran in several local editions and – occasionally – on the main editorial pages. Sometimes my thoughts even garnered national attention. It constantly amazed me (and still does) how many people care to read what I think….

So I’m all about the right of people to hold, express, and argue on behalf of, their opinions.
But there is a difference – or at least there is supposed to be – between sharing personal opinion (or commentary) and reporting the news.

Unfortunately, very few media outlets (talk radio, television, websites….) make a clear distinction anymore between NEWS and COMMENTARY. In fact, I believe it’s true to say (and this is just my OPINION) that many news outlets do their best to make the line between the two as fuzzy as they possibly can.

Consequently, it’s very difficult for an increasingly uninformed public/electorate to tell the difference. The result has become a talk show industry that features talking heads who present themselves as serious journalists, and a news industry that interjects so much opinion that the public has become cynical regarding its ability to gather information and report without bias.

Share your opinionCONTROVERSY: All this – above – comes as my preview for a few brief comments on the current Chick-Fil-A brouhaha:
  1. Chick-Fil-A President Dan Cathy is entitled to his opinion regarding what he believes the Bible says about human relationships. He can write, speak, lobby and pontificate to his heart’s content.
  2. Other people are also at liberty to agree, disagree, lobby, argue and share their ideas regarding God’s position on topics such as gay marriage.
  3. And, most importantly, each one of us has the right to either eat at Chick-Fil-A or not eat at Chick-Fil-A. It’s our choice.
Personally, I not only love Chick-Fil-A chicken, but I love the fact that the restaurant stays closed on Sundays and there’s never a question of an employee having to choose work over church. The Cathy family happens to stand a fair distance to my “right” when it comes to their understanding of Christian faith and practice, but I’m not going to boycott their business because we don’t agree on how we interpret the Bible!

CROSSING THE LINE! However, when  Chicago city Alderman Joe Moreno said Chick-Fil-A can forget about getting a permit for any new locations (“I’m not gonna sit on the sidelines and allow them to come in when I know in my heart that they believe in discriminating against gay people.” – CBS This Morning) then someone is crossing the line of separation between state and religion, and it’s not Chick-Fil-A.

The last thing America needs right now is for people in elected public office to attempt to shut down opinion in the name of “political correctness.”

The Cathys don’t discriminate in hiring practices, nor do they discriminate in delivery of service. They’re entitled to their views regarding marriage, and the public is entitled to either agree or disagree, and to patronize or not.

Come on, Chicago, we can do better than this - DEREK

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

thoughts about faith, politics, and communication

On My Mind
I’m trying to jump-start my brain this morning, but either someone put decaf in the wrong pot or I need to look for a brand with a higher wattage definition of the word “robust.”

It reminds me of  how important it is that the definitions we attach to words and ideas have some degree of consistency. Because if my idea of “strong” coffee means one thing and your is something else then one of us is always going to be disappointed when we get together to share a cup.

Effective communication is dependent on such clarity. However, in our media saturated world, where ideas can be articulated and then disseminated globally in a matter of seconds, we seem to be farther apart from understanding one-another than ever before.

POLITICS: This is a serious problem in politics, where “Candidate A” will often define a word or idea in such a way that, when “Candidate B” uses it, a distorted layer of meaning is added.

It’s not subtle at all, and it’s often carefully calculated. For example, I sometimes hear the idea of “I love America” presented in ways that are so politically loaded that the moment someone from the other party opens their mouth they can immediately be labelled “un-American!”

It’s like trying to measure a distance in feet by using a ruler that’s actually 10.5 inches long. That’s crazy. Everyone should work from the same idea when it comes to what “one foot” actually means.

But in politics (and very much during this 2012 race) no-one appears to be genuinely interested in honest communication.

FAITH: I’m also very much involved in some important conversations about faith this week. What, as an example, do these words and ideas mean to you?
  • Christian?
  • Witness
  • Worship?
  • Faith?
  • Salvation?
  • Grow in faith?
  • Joy?
  • Discipleship?
  • Relevancy?
  • Being a Church?
These are just a few of the words that people who attend church use as part of their faith-based lexicon. Yet, if we put any group of “Christians” in a room together to talk about these critically important ideas, then we’d uncover wide variations as how these concepts are defined.

And I wonder, when we have conversations about our particular faith community, and when we’re talking about what needs to happen for us to be able to move forward… how well are we really communicating?

AGREEMENT: Here’s what I believe. The bottom line in both faith and politics is not that we agree so much as that we understand one-another, that we learn to listen without judgment, and that we communicate with open spirits.

Most of the time, and when we are open and honest with one-another, we’re going to discover that we really are in agreement when it comes to what is most important.
  • What’s important in matters of faith is that we love God with all our heart, mind, body and soul, that we love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, and that we live as intentional disciples who follow The Way of Jesus.
  • And what’s most important in matters of politics is that we love this country, that we love our neighbor as much as ourselves, and that we live both in gratitude and with a sense of responsibility for this great land of opportunity.
GET OVER IT: But, in order for that to happen, we have to get over ourselves, get over our incessant need to be right, and then heed these words of Jesus:

 “What is written in the Law?” the man replied. “How do you read it?”
Jesus answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Amen, and amen – DEREK

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

the bridge - the tree of life

Footbridge on Lake Junaluska, July 11, 2012
Rebekah (she’s my awesome wife, if you didn’t already know) is pretty-much my biggest fan. She says encouraging stuff about my writing all the time. She not only says encouraging stuff, but she really means it.

She also likes my photography; but I could switch out the image I use for a blog header 20 times in a month and chances are she wouldn’t notice. Until, that is, the current image – of a bridge in grainy, rainy half-light – came up just a couple of weeks ago. She says it’s the best header ever.

I took the photograph with my iPhone, during a light rain, in the early evening on a walk around Lake Junaluska in North Carolina. In fact (and hedging against the probability that I will, at some point in the future, replace my header image) I’ll paste in the photograph above, in the body of the text, so you can see the entire thing.

Rebekah says she likes the picture because it’s a theological truth without the need for words.

WORDS: But this is a blog post, and there’s always a need of words; so let’s talk about that truth a little:
I’ve been reading the first few chapters of the book of Genesis, and the sad story of how an ever-widening separation was set between the Creator and the creation. When Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke, tells the parable about Lazarus and the rich man, he described this separation as,”A great gulf, fixed.”

But something most amazing happened. A bridge has been constructed across that great gulf, and that bridge is Jesus. We’re not talking about a mysterious passage into the afterlife; instead, this is a conversation about a bridge that leads to life now.

I love this passage from Revelation 22:  “And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”

HEALING: My understanding of this connection is immediate. We have access to the pure river of the water of life now, and we have access to the tree that is available for the healing of the nations. Jesus is the bridge, and Jesus is the tree of life too. We know that Jesus offers the life that is truly life, we just have to live into it.

It’s all about intentionality, this bridge. It’s about making the choice to put one foot in front of the other and cross over to Jesus. And the answer is life. It may look misty and hard to grasp from here, but the invitation is clear as can be. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” Jesus said.

The Way, the Truth, and the Life….
“I am the way, the truth, and the life!” Jesus answered. “Without me, no one can go to the Father. If you had known me, you would have known the Father. But from now on, you do know him, and you have seen him
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father. That is all we need.” Jesus replied: “Philip, I have been with you for a long time. Don’t you know who I am?” (John 14:6-9)

Monday, July 23, 2012

home, challenge, growth (its all good)

I rejoiced with those who said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
 Our feet are standing
in your gates, Jerusalem! (Psalm 122)

File photo from earlier this year
ow good to be back with my home church community yesterday, after three Sundays away!

I had worshiped with family in Virginia Beach, friends in Asheville, North Carolina, and the men’s conference in West Virginia. I enjoyed great experiences with awesome people. But First Presbyterian of Brandon is a unique environment, and it’s the place where I am loved, encouraged and nurtured.

It was fun to play guitar again, with the praise band. It was wonderful to stand and sing hymns with a congregation that’s not afraid to let loose with a little enthusiasm. It was inspirational to hear Rebekah preach (although I have been keeping up with her messages via podcast).

ENTHUSIASM: It may be summer, with scores of people traveling on any given weekend, but both worship services were well attended. Plus there’s this impossible to miss sense that fpcBrandon is a gathering of people who actually live their discipleship from day-to-day; that people show up at church because they enjoy a meaningful, active relationship with God; and that Jesus is a real friend rather than a childhood memory, an ideal, or a vague image frozen in a panel of stained glass.

This morning I’ve been thinking about my walk with God, and how critically important all of these experiences are to the forward progress of my journey.
  • Contemplation
    “SoulFeast:” North Carolina was a powerful experience. There was worship, and instruction, and I even spoke five times as one of the leaders, but the tone was contemplative, and my spiritual growth was anchored in my prayerful walks around the lake, and my study, and a lot of listening.
  • “Extreme Faith- Bold Action!” Then, in the hills of West Virginia, the focus was intense, loud, visceral. The impact was more immediate and emotional. Men, singing hymns and weeping at the beauty of the experience of community. Literal SHOUTS of praise. Hard work, sweat, building things, building one-another, camaraderie. I felt at times as if I’d been hit full force with a tidal wave of faith. I was at the front, leading, but it felt as if I were in the middle, being embraced.
  • First Presbyterian Church: And now, back here, at home. Home base is where the day-by-day work of knowing and being known plays out. Home is where long-term assessment, and prayer, and applied love works its way into the experience of growing in faith. Home is where the roots grow long and drink deeply from the cumulative nourishment of many years.
Good to be home
So it is good to be back here in Brandon, Florida. But God’s family is wide and generous, and rooted in many places; it’s been an eyes-wide-open kind of a summer thus far.

I want to continue to have an eyes-wide-open experience of faith. I want to continue to grow. And I want to continue to be the kind of faithful disciple who is willing to be part of God’s ongoing plan to strengthen and encourage and grow the kingdom of promise and grace.

Peace, and love – DEREK

Saturday, July 21, 2012

the more I practice, the luckier I get

Speaking at the opening rally (photo courtesy of Ray Gryder)
This morning I stumbled on the opening remarks I delivered at the kick-off rally for the “EXTREME FAITH – BOLD ACTION” conference in West Virginia last weekend (The Christian Church – Disciples of Christ). The remarks seemed to go over pretty well, so I’ll trim them down to blog post length and share them for today’s Weekend Update:

hen I headed toward Bethany from Lake Junaluska (North Carolina) I had a long way to drive, so I may have been speeding just a teensy bit. Cruising through Asheville I checked my rear-view mirror to see a State Trooper sitting on my tail. I waved at the officer and shrugged my shoulders, but he responded with a frown and an exaggerated shake of his head. Then he laughed, waved, and pulled off at the next exit.

The incident reminded me of the spring day everything went perfectly for me on the golf course. Inexplicably, I shot a 78. I felt so good I drove home with the top open while listening to LOUD rock-’n-roll. The Plant City Cop pulled me over as I zoomed past Turkey Creek Middle School singing along to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody at 55 mph.

Long story short, the officer recognized me from the newspaper. He said, “I could write you a $300 ticket, but instead I want to shake your hand,” and then sent me on my way.

Someone told me I had a lot of luck going my way that day, and one of my golfing buddies said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” But that got me to thinking and I recalled a television interview with Phil Mickelson after “Lefty” made a hole-in-one at a tournament.

Keynote, Sat night (photo: Andra Moran)
“Wouldn’t you agree that a hole-in-one really is a result of luck,” the commentator said. “It’s actually no better than a great shot that stops a foot from the going in.”

Mickelson looked at him, and raised one eyebrow. “Maybe,” he said. “But over time I’ve noticed how the more I practice the luckier I tend to be…”

PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE… Our experience as Christian men – as disciples of Jesus – is a lot like that. The essential meaning of “disciple” is discipline, and the key behavior in discipline is practice. Being intentional when it comes to practicing what it means to follow Jesus is one of the most important decisions we can make if we want to add life and meaning to our experience of faith.

My senior year in high school I played in the annual “Masters versus the Boys” golf match. I wasn’t on the team, but they needed a couple of extra players because more teachers wanted to play. By some strange confluence of circumstance the entire contest came down to me and my English teacher on the 18th green. I had a meandering 20-foot putt to win. If I missed it the boys team lost.

There were at least 100 people watching, mostly my friends. I closed my eyes and tried to block everything else out other than the putt. When I opened them the hole appeared about the size of a manhole cover, and it was the simplest thing in the world to roll the ball into the hole.
It was the focus. The single-minded purpose. That’s what made it work.

At the keynote, Saturday night (photo by Andra Moran)
PRAYER: So my prayer for all of you this weekend (I said to the Disciples of Christ Men last weekend) is that you bring that kind of focus to your relationship with Jesus. Then you will not need to be lucky in your journey… because Jesus is that good.

“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:7-9)

In Christ – DEREK