Creeds are not Chex Mix. (Creeds for Newbies, Episode 4)

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When asked what I think of the trendy rewriting of creeds in progressive liturgical churches, I usually respond in the words of imminent theologian Ron Burgundy: “That’s just dumb.”

Creeds are not Chex Mix. You know, the party snack that you pick through taking out the morsels you like. But we don’t high-grade out what we like of God and leave the rest in the bowl. A Luby’s Cafeteria may make for a nice all-you-can-eat Sunday afternoon lunch, but picking and choosing a faith of our own creation is narcissistic and foolish. Not to mention a risky way to live one’s life. The old joke, “God created us in his image and we returned the favor,” comes to mind.

The creeds were written by the early and undivided church as summaries of the faith. They have been vetted by universal acceptance of the entire church, both through time and across geography. When Vincent of Lerins wrote in the 500’s,  “What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all,” he was referring to the faith bounded by the Nicene Creed. The impulse to re-write the creed to make it more relevant is, at best, misguided. The creed is not ours to futz with. (By the way, someone rewriting a creed is almost certainly a baby boomer.) Seriously, stop rewriting creeds.

Passing the Baton

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures …” (I Cor 15:3-4)

Our role is to explain not to change “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” (Jude 3) The creed is the universal. Beyond that is adiaphora (things indifferent) - perhaps helpful. Perhaps important. Just not mandatory for recognizing a “like” faith. So we do not change the core. We pass it on, handing the baton of faith to the next generation.

Passing the Baton

When it comes to the substance of the faith, there are two extremes: Fundamentalism and Universalism. Fundamentalism elevates the “you may” to “you must”—tithing, homeschooling, a particular theory of the atonement, etc. Fundamentalism raises the bar making options essential. The opposite is Universalism. Universalism drops the essentials making them optional. Universalism lowers the bar and says, in effect, “There is nothing you must believe.” Universalism leaves us with such a low bar to the faith that few see any reason to join. This is why we don’t “edit” universal truth. Fundamentalism hands the next runner an anvil to run with. Universalism gives them an empty hand-off. We receive and pass on, “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.

The Great Tradition

Seventeenth century Archbishop Lancelot Andrewes explained “tradition” as “one canon (the Scriptures), two testaments, three creeds, and four councils, over the first five centuries.” The three creeds prioritize Christian beliefs. As Rupert Meldinius said in 1627, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.” Creeds keep the main thing the main thing.

The creeds articulate God as trinity, an idea that is impossible to get one’s mind wrapped around – which doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. In fact, anyone who can contain the infinite God of the universe between their ears really needs to find themselves a bigger God.

Creeds are our wedding vows 

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Creeds are not about warm-fuzzies or even felt convictions. They are the substance of the faith the church has stood upon since soon after Jesus left. They are like marriage vows-so much so that they form the substance of the promises one makes in Holy Baptism. There is a reason we take marriage vows – It is because human love is fickle. We imagine that love sustains commitment, but actually it is just the opposite. It takes great commitment to sustain love. A couple makes vows and clings to them through thick and thin…and, at the end of life, a thing of loving beauty has been produced. The historic creeds work the same way. The Nicene Creed proclaimed in church is a promise to cling to the glory and vastness of God, even when the pressures of life scream to give up. When said in church, by the community of faith, the Nicene Creed is a weekly prayed promise to act in love toward God. It is our spiritual, “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part.”

Creeds answer the question, “What must we believe?” We answer,  “We believe in one God, the father, the almighty…”  

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A parent shares an unlikely secret to raising great teens

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Do you have kids in those really enjoyable third through sixth grade years? If so, you are probably a bit nervous about the teen years you know are looming around the corner.

I am the parent of two teens…at least until my daughter turns twenty next month. For the most part, our kids thrived through high school. And without arresting beauty, stellar brains, or athletic prowess, our kids were both voted president of their classes all through their high school years and were pursued by quality universities…including my son being invited to the Naval Academy’s summer program. Our parenting secret? While my friends pushed their kids to learn second languages, play on club teams, and take etiquette courses, we charted another parenting course. We involved our kids in an innovative program for youth. A program that data told us is linked to:

  • Dramatically reduced rebelliousness and risk of committing a crime
  • Increased participation in high school
  • Lowered rate of premarital sex
  • Reduction in binge drinking in high school and college
  • Improved academic performance in high school and college
  • Improved odds of saying they have a “very happy life” as an adult
  • And is even linked to an 8 year increase in life expectancy!

What is the activity that gives parents these outcomes we want for our kids?

The answer may surprise you. It is active participation in a local church. No, I’m not kidding. The data comes from sources such as the Center from Disease Control, Indiana, Michigan and Duke Universities, and the Barna Research Group. The caveat, the student has to be “deeply involved” in the church. According to the National Survey of Youth and Religion, “occasional attendees” have virtually no behavioral difference from non-attenders. Research indicates that regular church participation is associated with a decrease in every risky behavior that parents want their children to avoid and an increase in the behaviors that parents want to encourage.

Sometimes it is an issue of not seeing the forest for the trees. What we really want for our kids isn’t to be a great soccer player or to have a specific friend group. What we really want for our children is to have a great life. We see those other things as means to the end of becoming great human beings; self-sufficient and making a contribution to the world we leave them. The church is your number one support in your deepest yearnings for your kids.

Which brings us back to my kids: Although I am a picky parent, I genuinely like and respect the people my kids have become. I am proud of the decisions they make and the motives behind them. I am proud of how they carry themselves, a strong young woman and young man who stick up for underdogs, refuse to push others around or allow others to push them around. They are kind. They work hard. They serve others. They have stuck to their sexual purity guns. They are deep and fun. They, especially my daughter, are admirably resilient. They are viewed as leaders by their peers.

Why does it work?

To a great degree the people they have become is the result of a deeply committed walk with God. And a deeply committed faith is almost always the fruit of deep commitment to a local faith community. Regardless of what you personally think of Christian commitment, a deeply committed faith is a gift that, unlike participation in a club team, will keep giving to your child over the arc of their life.

What is the secret sauce?

Deep immersion in a church almost always includes a relationship with an older Christian mentor, aka, a youth worker. Youth workers reinforce parent’s messages from home. They do this as an influential voice a step or two older and wiser than their peers. Youth workers are role models and visible pictures of what positive choices gain one in life. They are a gift to parents that cannot be under-estimated.

As a parent, you and I have more to do with our teen’s success than anything or anyone in their lives. One of the best things we did to leverage that parental influence was to involve them in the church. At church, great young adults who love God, loved my kids. These young people, both church workers and Young Life leaders, helped my kids have a bigger vision for their lives. They helped my kids see their gifts, gave them opportunities for leadership and encouraged them to develop those gifts. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” tells us that highly successful people are the first ones to 10,000 hours in an activity. In a good church, leaders will spend a great amount of time teaching your child to serve others, speak in public, develop and articulate deeply held beliefs, discover musical gifts they didn’t know they have, and develop social skills that will bless them the rest of their lives. They will be busier, without a doubt, but they will develop new capacities, and the life skills that they need most for future life-success. And our kids are not unique in this. The kids in our small mission church’s youth program are a virtual Who’s Who of the student leaders in the four neighborhood high schools they attend.

So parents, take your kids to church. Get involved. Get your kids involved. In the end, it will do far more for them than the soccer league you miss on Sunday mornings. I promise.

“Get your head in the game!” Seeing our need for a Savior.

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A Sermon: Luke 3:7-18

John has quite the attention getter for his message. I wonder what it would do to Sunday church attendance if preachers today opened sermons the way John did: “You guys…You. (pointing around the room) Guys…are a bunch of poisonous snakes. What are you doing here? Who warned you that God is about to play whack-a-mole and you’re the mole?” As I recall, the first lesson in high school speech was “Don’t insult your audience.” John the baptizer apparently took a different elective.

Last week we learned that John was appointed a task even more difficult than his outfits and diet: Preparing the way for the messiah. How does one prepare the way for the Savior of humanity? What does one do and say to “make straight the paths of the Lord”? The answer was a one-word message: “Repent!” Repent is a word your Bible translators left un-translated. Literally it means: “Change your mind.” Today we might say, “Get your head together!”

When John was preaching this sermon Jesus was still under wraps… he has not yet began his 3-year public teaching ministry. Not yet come, in his words, “to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)

How does “getting our head together” prepare us for Jesus’ coming? Receiving a savior presumes we realize that we need one. That, in a nutshell, is John’s task…

Story: Remember the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles? Steve Martin is stuck on a trip home for the holidays with a somewhat deranged shower ring salesman played by John Candy. In one scene they get turned around while driving at night. They end up on the wrong side of the freeway. A car on the other side of the guardrail realizes the error and the couple inside furiously motions for Martin and Candy to roll down the car window. The couple in the car shouts at our protagonists, “You’re going the wrong way!” “What?” “You’re going the wrong way!” Martin and Candy are oblivious. They think the couple frantically warning them wants to race…then, when they hear the warning, assume the couple is drunk. After all, they reason, “How would they know where we are going?” Finally, Steve Martin realizes that he is looking at the wrong color road stripe. He looks up and sees two sets of semi headlights bearing down on them. In shock Martin begins to breathlessly warn, “truck, truck!”

…Is there any doubt today that we as a culture are going the wrong way? And what is a culture but a collection of individuals. The conclusion is inescapable: If the culture is going the wrong way, it is all of us. To quote the Blues Brothers: “You, me, them. Everybody. Everybody.”

We are going the wrong way.

In the shadow of the events at the Sandy Hook school 3 days ago, we cannot deny the effects of evil and sin and societal breakdown and failed solutions. One would have to have their heads deep in the sand to not be painfully aware that the world is going the wrong way. Sandy Hook wasn’t even our first mass-murder this week. That happened in Portland. In seven previous mass-murders this year alone, 41 other people have died in 7 other mass shootings.

Our world is broken. We are broken. If we are honest we will admit that most of us are but a few missed paychecks, a few bad months, a few broken relationships, a few bad decisions, and a little bit of self-medication away from unraveling our lives. There but for the grace of God go we.

And it is no longer enough to play the rugged individualist card. We live interconnected lives. What I do with my life matters to you. What you do matters to me. What we do matters to our neighborhood. We cannot say, “Stop worrying about me…take your hands and your laws off of my life.” Every freedom I have involves a corresponding responsibility upon each of you. And, in a time of social breakdown, we must all pull together, lay aside our rights and step up our responsibility for the common good. We must, “Get our heads together.

In verse 8 John is saying, in effect: “Are you God’s child? Then live like it! Don’t live off of yesterday’s spiritual accomplishments…don’t claim some spiritual pedigree.” John points out the obvious: “trees that don’t bear fruit get cut down and burned so that other trees might bear fruit.” This isn’t necessarily anger. It is just reality. In every realm of life, if we don’t get the job done, someone else will.

How did the crowd respond to John’s “Get your head in the game!” Message? They ask the obvious question: “How?”

3 times 3 groups ask “How?” The crowd. The tax collectors. The soldiers. “How do I live like a person with my head in the game?”

It is the right question. For them. And for us.

John gives them obvious advice that makes sense in their context: Share. Don’t cheat. Be satisfied with your pay…obvious for them, and still pretty obvious for us today.

I see three implications in this passage. Two are overt. One we learn later when Saint Paul comments on the meaning of the Christ event:

First: Come humbly. Humility is the hallmark of a life ready to receive God. Live in a way that is open-hearted to God. Let God continually change your mind. Humility is the mark of one who walks with God. So come humbly.

Second: Live Selflessly. As a result of our humility before God, live a life that lays down our wants for other’s needs. The world really needs us to…but more than that, because turning from our self-centered sinfulness always has the effect of proving to us how unable we are to actually pull it off. Living selflessly leads to the third implication:

Third: See your need for a savior.

John is reminding the crowds of God’s law: the Old Testament standard. The law functions like that measuring stick at Disneyland. The one where if you aren’t big enough you don’t get on the good rides. The Law is the measuring rod to reveal to God’s children that we don’t measure up. Paul said it like this: “…if it had not been for the law I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it was to covet if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” (Romans 7:7-12) The law is God’s yardstick to make us realize how much we need a savior!

How does the message “Get your head in the game…”and bear the fruits of repentance” pave the way for the One who is to come? The more God increases the more our pride decreases. That is why Paul says, “O wretched man that I am.” (Rom. 7:24) It isn’t self-loathing. It is glory-of-God-awareness. More than a few old saints have told me that the closer they get to the God, the more aware they become of their fallen-ness and God’s great goodness.

What is the result?The people were filled with expectation.” They ask John if he is the one they are waiting for.  We all cling to hope. Like Jamie Foxx, who at the BET awards in November referred to “Our Lord and Savior, Barack Obama,” we are always looking for a Savior. But like the President who rolled his eyes at the comment, John is very clear, “Another is coming after me whose shoes I am not worthy to untie.” And the one who comes will also have his own baptism: “the Holy Spirit and fire.”

What does being immersed in the Holy Spirit bring? Jesus said in John, “He will bring to mind all Jesus taught us.” (John 14:28) And,  “He will convict of sin, righteousness and judgment.” (16:8)

Conviction is a divine invitation to allow God to work. God is love, but loving us involves helping us to become most fully the person we were made to be, and when we allow trees not bearing good fruit to grow up in our lives, well, the Holy Spirit helps with that.

In verse 17, John uses a final word picture, that of “His threshing floor.” A threshing floor was a flat spot in a breezy area. A farmer would throw his harvest in the air so that the heavier grain would fall at their feet while the breeze could blow away the dead chaff. The harvest was collected. The chaff? It is burned. That was what you did with garbage before landfills.

We all have chaff in our lives. John’s message is that the time is right to expose the chaff in our lives to the wind of the Spirit. The time is right to let God blow that which hides the harvest away.

Do you have something against another? We are going to be reconciled in the Passing of the Peace. Use that time to make it right.

Is there something between you and God? We are coming to the Lord’s table. We will come as we ought: on bent knee, with open hands. Offer to God whatever it is the Holy Spirit is convicting you is in the way.

If you have not yet, placed your life in God’s hands. Put your trust in God and receive God’s gift of life in Christ. Come forward and ask one of the ministers to explain a relationship with God.

John’s final sentence this morning: “with many exhortations John proclaimed the Good News.” We don’t think of exhortation as a part of Good News. But if we do not have a diagnosis we do not want to drink the medicine.

Here is the exhortation: Let God blow away the chaff.

Here is the Good News:

-We are forgiven by God as a gift purchased by God’s son on the cross.

-We are adopted as God’s own children as a gift.

-We have growth in faith and knowledge and wisdom as a gift.

-We have a calling to participate with God in extending his Kingdom A.

*All is gift.

And the way to receive any gift is with thanksgiving…hands open and a smile on our face. That is what “Eucharist” means: Thanksgiving.

It is almost Christmas: the celebration of God sending the gift of his Son. Christmas is not OUR birthday. And yet, the world received a gift. That is why it is so important that we Come Humbly, Serve Selflessly, and See your need for a savior.

As we await Jesus’ coming at Christmas, to walk among his creation, and to purchase victory through his passion, let us, as the old Eucharistic prayer says, “offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.

Amen.

Illegitimacy: A far bigger “fiscal cliff”


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Soon, we are told, we will go over the “fiscal cliff.” When it happens our politicians and corporations will make a beeline to our tv screens and exhort us to do our part: spend money.

No one is talking about it, but we have a much bigger drag on our economy than the fiscal cliff. It drags our nation down every minute of every day. It is children born out of wedlock, what used to be known as “illegitimacy.” 42% of American children are now born out of wedlock. Why is this a problem? Because, generally speaking, 3/4 of children born OUT OF wedlock are born INTO poverty.

I have spent 30 years in youth ministry. Largely this amounts to being a friend and a mentor…sort of an uncle to young people during their critical adolescent period. What I have seen time and time again is that to successfully make the jump to adulthood means making just a few big decisions right. With those few big decisions, people generally end up in a pretty good place. You don’t have to be anywhere close to a perfect person, but for life to go fairly well for most of us, meant three choices:

  1. Don’t do anything in which the worst thing that could happen is for you to like it. (ie. addiction)
  2. Get an education (in something that will get you a  decent paying job)
  3. Get married.

In the absence of someone else to pay the bills, if you don’t make the Big Three major decisions in order, life gets very difficult, very quickly. 

You might ask, “Where is faith in this equation?” Faith is the fourth predictor. My son is in Student Council at a Title IV high school. Of the students whose homes kids go to for events, it is the 1/3 who are church members whose homes are invariably used. That is because they tend to be the ones at the school with homes large enough to use. Their faith gave them a moral framework and supportive relationships to make the Big Three! For me, the Big Three decisions are 2nd, 3rd, and home plate. First base is faith. In baseball if you don’t get on first base nothing else really matters. Yes, someone can have a decent life in the here and now without faith because, as Jesus said, “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45) People can engage the faith decision anywhere around the Big Three and end up fine. But without the Big Three young people send themselves into poverty and set up their children to continue that dangerous cycle.

We have to help young people know the consequences of their life life choices. Here is a web link to a NJ news article that describes the connection between poverty and out-of-wedlock childbearing: (http://blog.nj.com/njv_editorial_page/2012/11/qa_why_marriage_may_be_the_str.html) It is controversial if you are a progressive, but in my experience, spot on. Helping young people with the other big decision, education, is controversial if you are a conservative and want to cut funding for public education. Isn’t it time we put our young people ahead of our politics?

Amare Stoudemire used to have a non-profit called, “Each one. Teach one.” I have no idea what that organization did. But the idea is right. If every person who reads this blog forwards it to your fb friend list and every one of us mentor one young person of poverty, from today until the day they graduate from college…we will have done far more to help our nation’s future than anything else in our power. So forward this to your friends and then become a Big Brother/Big Sister, a Young Life leader, join Mentor Kids USA or become a volunteer in your church’s youth ministry…find a way to longitudinally follow a young person as a wise aunt or uncle.

It will matter to them. It will change you. And the nation you save may be your own.

Won’t you join me and find a young person to share your life and wisdom with?