What’s so “Good” about Good Friday? A lot of truth in one little word

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What’s so “good” about Jesus Christ’s death? Why would we commemorate such a thing?

Here is what one of Jesus’ first and closest followers, Peter, wrote about his death several years later:  “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” (Peter 3:18, NRSV) Consider the implications of that one little pronoun, “for” in this single sentence. “For” occurs in our English translation 3 times. In the Greek New Testament, however, these are three different words.

  • “FOR sins” is “peri” – “concerning” or “about” – We get “perimeter” from this world. This is “about” in terms of “encircling.”
  • “once FOR all” is a single Greek word: “hapax” which is, “a single occurrence that won’t happen again.”
  • “the righteous FOR the unrighteous” – “huper” – for the sake of, on behalf of.”

There is a lot of theology in those three little prepositions: Jesus suffered to “encircle” our sins, in a “one time act”, a righteous replacement “for your sake.”

All of which is pretty darn “good.”

Holy Week for Newbies (Rebroadcast from last year)

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A primer for those wondering what all the hubbub is about.

Holy Week, in a nutshell, is a spiritual retreat without leaving home. Remember summer youth camp? You had an authentic, transformative experience of God in a group of others having the same experience. You came home connected to those people and God in a new way. You thought, “That was fantastic. I am different and I can hardly wait to come back next year.” Holy Week is a lot like that.

Holy Week is series of liturgical experiences that walk us through the final week of Jesus’ life. We journey with Jesus, in the short span of a week, from His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the missing guard unit, neatly rolled grave clothes, and the shocking appearance of a risen Savior. In a symbol and story impoverished culture, Holy Week opens our hearts to the gift of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. This is more than a psychological remembrance, it is actively allowing ourselves to be in that final week, baptized (immersed) into his death…”Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? …in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  (Romans 6:3-4)

Holy Week is sacramental

…and we are sacramental creatures. Regardless of any initial reaction you may have to that word, hear me out. A sacrament is a tangible symbol that creates what it signifies. Like kissing. When you first kissed that special someone on the doorstep at the end of the evening, it did more than represent thinking the girl was pretty and nice and that you enjoyed talking with her. It actually created and amplified those feelings. You walked back to your car more emotionally connected to her than you were when you opened her door a brief moment earlier.  And when her front door clicked shut, you fist pumped the air. “Heck, Yeah!” Because that kiss actually made more of what it signified.

So God gave us, fleshly, sacramental, critters that we are, a God who came in flesh. Who lived. Who breathed. Who touched us and was touched by us. Who walked willingly to a criminal’s cross, laid down, spread his arms wide for humanity, and waited for real nails to pierce his hands and feet. It is because you too are flesh and blood that you should engage in Holy Week…because Holy Week creates what it signifies: “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10)

A current reality

The ancient prayers point us to the deep mystery in this: It isn’t “Christ rose.” It is “Christ isrisen!” Holy Week is a current reality. A more real reality. So we do more than meditate on these holy mysteries. We allow them to become true within us, as our baptism is true within us. We join him on Maundy Thursday in His Last Supper. We are with him on Friday in His death. We keep prayerful watch before His tomb on Saturday. With growing anticipation we mark His descent into Hades and His trampling of death by His death. Finally, with shouts of joy, we greet His resurrection on Sunday morning, knowing that one day it will be our resurrection too. In Holy Week, as Orthodox priest Fr. Steven Freeman says, “The life to come becomes the life we live.”

A “deep mystery,” it should be said, is not magic. We must surrender to the prayers and liturgy – faith must be lived. In the end, Holy Week isn’t something we do. It is something that does us.

So what is the hubbub? 

Holy Week is more than an emotionally powerful experience. It is an opportunity for a greater sanctification. As Paul said, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Romans 6:8) Or, as an Arnold Swarzenegger character once said, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Do yourself a favor, make time to engage in Holy Week, especially the three-day “Triduum”: The despair of Golgotha on Good Friday, the muted sorrow of Saturday, the joyful Baptisms at Saturday’s Great Vigil, and the surprise of a risen Savior on Easter morning.

Almighty God, who through your only‑begotten Son Jesus Christ, overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life‑giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Holy Week Sched 2014 Blog

The Justice-ification of the Church: Where we went wrong and how we can do better

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Years ago a Catholic priest from India told me, “Ghandi said, ‘I look at Jesus and I want to be a Christian. But then I look at the lives of Christians…and I don’t want to be a Christian.‘”  The great scandal of the church, for Ghandi and for us, is the troubling lack of love shown by those of us who call ourselves “Christian.”

Having made pilgrimage to the Holy Land this spring, I was astonished at how small it is: The events in the Gospels can mostly be seen from each other: Bethphage, the village from which Jesus had the disciples borrow a donkey and her colt, is on the Mount of Olives. From this hill you can look across the narrow valley and over the Brook Kidron at the walls of Jerusalem and the gate Jesus rode through on the day we call Palm Sunday. The temple, from whose courts all four Gospel writers record Jesus casting the money-changers, was just inside the city wall. When Jesus entered the temple and focused on the failings of the religious establishment rather than shake his fist at the Roman occupiers whose Antonia fortress stared down into the Temple grounds, Jesus set the stage for the crowd’s turning on him when he stood before Pontius Pilate five days later. You can walk the Via Dolorosa, along which Jesus carried his cross to the place of crucifixion in minutes. The spot where Jesus was crucified and where he was buried are also remarkably close – so close that both the location of the crucifixion, Calvary, and Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb are under the same roof today. It is stunning how little geography God used in the great saving acts of his Son.

Scandalous also is how small the distance between, “Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Crucify Him!”

In the Gospels this took five days. In the Episcopal Church our liturgy places both the Palm Sunday and Good Friday scripture readings on the same day. My guess is that this is, in part, an acknowledgment that many will not prioritize attendance at the commemorations of our Lord’s redeeming acts in the Paschal Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. But it is also an acknowledgement of basic human nature: The distance between celebrating someone and demonizing them is also remarkably short – because, as humans, we have a remarkable capacity for…small.

With just a little dollop of disappointment we can move from kindness to vitriol in a single motion. We look for scapegoats, rush to judgments, and hold others in bondage with binary thinking. We litmus test and sort people into categories of our own devising. And we wish those short of wholehearted endorsement of the platforms we embrace cast into outer darkness. A few exhibits:[1]

  • Several months ago at lunch I overhear the animated conversation between a socially active pastor of another mainline denomination and an atheist college professor sharing our table. The pastor labeled group after group, “Evil!” until the atheist professor finally asked him, “Where’s the love, man?”[2]
  • A student asked me to breakfast the next morning and confessed (tearfully) that he was considering leaving the seminary. He was trying to grow in prayerfulness and was told that his pleas for his fellow students to act in love toward others was evidence of insufficient commitment to the social causes espoused by his peers. He was certain he would never gain their acceptance.

A progressive friend posted on Facebook several weeks ago, “I am uncomfortable that my church’s stance on every issue seems to completely mirror the culture.” I think he is right…

…but I am not nearly so nervous about aping the culture as I am about the next exit on this highway: the justice-ification of the church.

The conflation of church and culture is surely foolish, and I think, also small. But there is a great Protestant tradition of church by focus group. What I cringe at is the way Christians (progressive Christians in particular, but we are not alone in this), have managed to systematically turn social causes into “justice issues.” We do this with seemingly little self-awareness of the ramifications of these crusades. When we label an issue “justice” we stop working for sensible public solutions and begin brandishing swords. This is never so clear as on social media…

We call the press, issue positions, and forward polemics on our Facebook feeds.

But in the public sphere in a pluralistic society there will always be those who do not endorse our worldview. Can we make room for them? Can we “seek to understand before being understood”? Can we begin with the presumption that people are generally of good will and work from there toward solutions? What if, instead of “justice,” we argued our great disagreements starting with, “How do we find a ‘win’ for everyone?” And, “What will lead to human thriving?” Or better yet, remember that the church is first and foremost a place to worship Jesus Christ. How did the church become ground zero for the activism industry?

“But Matt,” you say, “justice is biblical. The Old Testament prophets spoke truth to power.” Yes, but you are not a biblical prophet, and this is not 2600 years ago. In our day “justice” is not helpful because it can never make room for another. Enraged justice usually results in the shaking of fists and mobs with torches in the night. When we drop the “justice” card then someone is guilty…and they must be punished. “Justice” is not served until the evil is purged.

When we label a disagreement “justice” it generally ends one place: “Burn the witch!”

But I do see examples of hope in the emerging generation of leaders: Two weeks ago a friend who is active in LGBT politics asked me if I would organize a meet and greet between an LGBT political action group and evangelical pastors. Yesterday seventeen young evangelical pastors and thought leaders met with Matthew Vines and others engaged in promoting same-sex marriage. While there was clear theological disagreement, it was a time of relationship building, healing, and mutual respect. Here is another: Next week I will be at a luncheon in the Roman Catholic bishop’s office to discuss spiritual unity between evangelicals and Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is a short way down the hill to Jerusalem. It is a short way from the cross to the tomb. It is a short way from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!”

But it is also a short way the other direction.

Going from “Crucify!” to “Hosanna!” is the exact same distance. It does take more work, but the Prince of Peace went up to Jerusalem and was crucified so that no one else need be.

Next week we will celebrate the forgiveness of both human and institutional sin on the cross. We could join Jesus in the way of that cross, extending our arms in love to all who are near. Perhaps if we did that, those who are far will see and notice. And the scandal of the church will be swallowed in the scandal of the cross.

As that old Indian priest said that day, “I implore you. Make Ghandi wrong. Be Easter people. May the love of our Lord Jesus Christ so shape and form you that all the world would see his mercy.

 

[1] Out of politeness I will only use examples from my own tribe. Evangelicals and Catholics will be able to think of many of their own examples.

[2] These evils included fracking, pipeline building, driving petroleum based cars, failure to recycle, and the fact that Darren Wilson had not been lynched. (The pastor was white.)

 

Will The Real St. Patrick Please Stand Up?

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Before you hoist a green one, what do you know of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland?

For starters, he was neither Irish nor a saint…at least never canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

Born around 390, Patrick’s parents were Romans living on the Welsh coast. Patrick came from a family of both economic means and Christian faith: His father was a deacon and his uncle a priest. As a boy, Patrick was taught the faith, but it didn’t take.

At 15 he was stolen by raiders and sold into slavery in Ireland. Working as a shepherd, Patrick was often hungry and near freezing. One night, since Patrick would not come to God, God came to him, “The Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that…I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God.” (Confession)

After 6 years God came to him again in a dream and told him, “Your boat is ready.” Patrick fled, successfully evaded capture for some 200 miles and stowed aboard a ship to England. Safely at home, he decided to repay God for his rescue by becoming a priest.

After years in “the forests and on the mountain…in the snow, in icy coldness…hunger,” and “attacks from Satan,” his family was glad to have him home. However, a safe ministry in Britain was not to be Patrick’s way. God interrupted Patrick with yet another dream in which the Irish people begged him, “Come walk among us again.

In 432 Patrick returned to minister to those who held him in servitude. As the result of this calling, and bolstered by a highly developed theology of evangelistic duty, Patrick went to the pagan northern and western regions of Ireland where there had been no previous Christian witness. He began by sharing the faith with kings and chieftains. His ministry was highly unorthodox for his time: Usually bishops were sent in response to existing Christian communities. Patrick, however, was the first to bring the Gospel to this land. Wildly successful, he remained in Ireland for the remaining 30 years of his life. Thousands were converted and many clergy ordained to extend his work.

It was not all fun and games either: Christian raiders from Britain killed a group of newly converted Irish men and stole their women into slavery while still in their baptismal robes. As a former slave, Patrick understood the evil of slavery and argued forcefully for their return, asking that the tithes on their ill-gotten gain be refused and his letter condemning the raiders be read in church every Sunday until they released the women.

Patrick was, arguably, the most significant pioneer missionary of the early Western church. By 400 AD, the West was already developing a Rome-centric clericalism. Clergy just did not run off to foreign lands in 430 AD. Not since the Apostle Paul, who said, “I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, so that I would not build on another man’s foundation,”[1] had there been a self-selecting missionary in the West. Patrick’s mission was also the first recorded effort to build Christianity outside of the wall of the Roman Empire without having first been invited.[2] Patrick built churches much closer to the New Testament model of engagement with the world, rather than the retreating church of the monastic model that would emerge in the rest of Europe to cope with the dark ages.

Patrick’s ministry, as revealed in his Confession, highlight many lessons for Christians today:

  1. He knew the Grace of God. Patrick knew that he was a sinner and that it was God’s grace that redeemed him and compelled him to ministry.
  2. He listened to God. We have five recorded dreams in which he heard God speak to him. God drew Patrick’s heart, and Patrick moved his feet in response.
  3. He relied on the powerful testimony of God’s action in his life to rally others.
  4. He knew the Scriptures well and either alluded to them or quoted from them overtly in nearly every verse of his Confession.

Patrick’s missionary methods are also instructive for the church today:

  1. Go: He felt compelled to “Go into all the earth” and focus on those who had previously not heard the Good News.
  2. Engage: Patrick learned the language and the culture- and adapted his methods to communicate to that culture without compromising the Christian message. (Using the shamrock to communicate the trinity…which might actually be apocryphal.)
  3. Stand: He stood up for justice and identified with the people he was called to serve. (The stolen women incident.)
  4. Reach: He intentionally and boldly evangelized kings and persons of influence.
  5. Reproduce: He called people to personal conversion and developed indigenous leaders. These are the hallmarks of effective missionaries throughout history.

We see in Patrick, much more than an excuse to drink green beer. Patrick was a man confident in the God who both called and used him mightily. He moved and ministered fearlessly in response to that call. Ironically, 150 years later it was the spiritual descendants of Patrick, Brendan, who saved Christianity in Europe, but that is another story for another post.

Surely Patrick’s life and ministry make March 17th, the anniversary of Patrick’s death, a day worth celebrating. He was a fearless lover of God who would go anywhere and do anything to reach people for Jesus.

Perhaps, as we lift a green one in Patrick’s honor, we would be convicted to follow his example.


[1] New American Standard Bible, (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1995; reprint, 1995). Romans 15:20-21

[2] Justo Gonzales, The Story of Christianity, vol. One (Peabody, Mass: Prince Press, 1984). Ulfilas mission to the Goths in the 75 years earlier had come at the Goths invitation. Gonzales, 218.

Changing your church: The difference between attractive and bizarre

 

photo credit: oddee.com

photo credit: oddee.com

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I had a great case of teenage acne. My doctor prescribed one tetraclycline tablet per day to clear up my skin. It worked; my skin began to clear up. A big dance was on the horizon, though, and I wanted to ask a girl that I found to be particularly fetching. In my internal dialogue I wished my face looked better before I stood before this beautiful thing to ask her out. I thought, “If some tetracycline is making my face better, a bunch of tetracycline would make it much better. What I didn’t realize was that too much of a good thing has some pretty ugly side effects – such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and my skin turning yellow.

In his old book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the unintuitive fact that the difference between abject failure and runaway success is razor-thin. Gladwell powerful articulates that success is not additive but multiplicative-like a flu epidemic. He gives a dozen cases of small ideas that became iconic (like Sesame Street, Gore-Tex, and Hush Puppy shoes to name a few) when they “tipped.” He exposes the small tweaks that were key to getting diseases, social trends, events, and companies to “tip.” We have much to learn from Gladwell in the church – in particular his genius for mining data for what is actually there rather what we expect to see there.

Another area we could use Gladwell’s help with in the Episcopal Church: The razor thin difference between being attractive and being off-putting for the majority of seekers. Both involve change. But one change creates a fragrant aroma that draws you in. The other is a bridge too far. One is like cookies baking in the oven. The other like someone forgot to take out the trash. The first makes one interested in stepping further in. The other repulses.

Here is the principle that stands between the two: one standard deviation from the expected makes something attractive. Two standard deviations makes it bizarre. As an example, young men right now are really into big ol’ lumberjack beards and mustaches. But when one does what the fellow in the photo at the top of this post does with it, it is one standard deviation too far. It goes from attractive to bizarre.

You can see this in churches: A church that changes its music or preaching grows wildly. Change them both to something that runs counter to the expectations, and you become a bridge too far and are preaching to an empty room. You can become a socially engaged evangelical church (like Mission Community in Queen Creek, AZ) and explode, or liturgically evangelical (like New City in downtown Phoenix). Do both at the same time and it closes the front door rather than opening it.

You can see this in seminaries: A seminary that teaches the standard, expected evangelicalism starts an “Anglican Formation” program. These have become the fastest growing programs at more than a dozen evangelical seminaries across the country, while our seminaries continue to struggle for students. Why? One reason is that our seminaries tend to teach experimental theologies, community organizing, and a minimum of the expected biblical languages, scriptural foundations, and exegesis courses. We are two or three standard deviations past “attractive.” This makes our seminaries “scary” to gifted but unaffiliated students.

In another example, I started a church that had a difficult time generating momentum for a host of reasons. One significant issue was trying too many things at once. We were multi-ethnic and liturgical. Either one of those was attractive in our context. But being both liturgical and tri-ethnic in our leadership teams was a very difficult balance that kept many who were game for either/or but not both away from us. In addition, we had a third deviation from the norm: we were in a neighborhood of immigrants who had never heard of the Episcopal Church. And a fourth: We were a training ground for young adults in leadership, so our service quality was pretty uneven. Being “different” made people want to come. But we were often a too different for folks.

The church often gets lured into the fallacy that more of something successful is better. “Progressive politics helped us, so lets have progressive liturgies, and progressive theology.” (You could very easily substitute the word “conservative” here. Or most any other word, for that matter.) How do we avoid becoming bizarre?

Take aways:

-Ask good questions.

-Listen to both what those who are and those who are not visiting your church are saying.

-Know your culture.

-Ask the question, “What do we offer the body of Christ that is unique to this place and time?

-And don’t get lured into thinking that if a little of something works, a lot of that something is even better. More isn’t always better.

 

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The Leadership Dilemma: Questions to ask before giving someone a position of influence.

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All spring we will hear sports personalities argue Florida State’s Jameis Winston versus Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in the upcoming NFL draft. It is a conversation that happens every few years: an incredibly gifted, NFL ready talent with character and maturity questions, versus a good talent with character and maturity. One young man is a freak: So physically gifted he became the youngest person to ever win a Heisman trophy. The other is very, very good – good enough to win the Heisman trophy this year. Two players who will be asked to play the most difficult position in all of professional sports. If you land one of the eight or nine humans who have freakish talent combined character and maturity your team will be relevant for the next decade. How big of an issue is landing one of the “right guys” for an NFL team? They become the face of your franchise. They might mean a billion dollars in revenue over the ten or twelve years they play.

A similar conversation happens in the church: Talent versus character. I had a friend (with character issues) telegraph those once when he said, “I was having a conversation with another pastor. We decided our tradition has all of the gifts and yours has all of the character.” I could have very easily told him of the people in our tradition who have not exhibited character. Instead I cut the conversation short and wondered how long until his indiscretion was revealed. (It took less than 60 days. Four years later I remain hopeful that he develop character and be restored to grace in his own heart.)

Maybe you are on the team searching for a senior pastor. Maybe you are a pastor looking for coveted leaders for your ministry teams – People of spiritual passion and the gifts necessary to reach your community. You know the temptation when the gifted, articulate, personally charismatic person shows up on your radar. They start coming to your church, or you meet them at a ministry conference or a coffee house. They have obvious talent and fill a need you have been praying for the right person to fill. And they have “the stuff.” You know, that intangible thing that makes others want to follow them. The big question: Can you trust them?

Here are a few questions to ask before putting someone in leadership:

  • Is what they have holy fire or arrogance?
  • Do they submit to authority
  • Do they complain about their previous leaders?
  • Do they follow through on tasks?
  • Do they have a teachable spirit?
  • Do they ask questions?
  • Do they have a past? (Do they flop churches when under accountability?)
  • What is their end-game? (What do they want to be doing in 10 years?)
  • Do they have a positive demeanor?
  • Do they have self-control under fire?
  • Are they a good fit? How does the rest of the team view them?
  • How much supervision do you want?

And for sure check their references!

When all of those questions are answered to your satisfaction, give them 6 months before you put them in charge of anything!

Make the process take a while. Make sure they know you like them and see their gifts, but that you want them to be part of your family before leading the family.

If you hire on character alone you end up with Tim Tebow: A great guy who could not get the job done. If you short circuit “due diligence” on talent you will wake up to find yourself in the position of the Cleveland Browns who got caught up in the hype last year and drafted “Johnny Football.” Now the Browns are stuck with a distraction who has shown little indication that he has the ability to turn into a dependable leader. In football that costs you wins and money. In the church it costs us the souls of those we have been charged with tending.

A Baby Announcement

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born this day of a pure virgin: Grant that we who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 213)

photocredit: tracitoddphotography.com

photocredit: tracitoddphotography.com