Spiritual but not religious? Beliefs matter.

The Feasts for Newbies: Trinity Sunday (Part One)

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Trinity Sunday is that feast in the Christian Year that is about a doctrine rather than an event. And let’s be honest, doctrine sounds like divisive, dusty stuff. You may be one of the many who avoid doctrine with, “I’m spiritual but not religious, I feel no need of your divisive, dusty doctrines. I have the real thing.

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I am sympathetic. Experiencing the Holy One is certainly where it is at, but the “spiritual but not religious” answer is a bit too pat. Here’s why: My son’s college offshore sailing team just sailed the Annapolis to Newport race. My son was navigator. Getting ready for three days offshore meant lots of prep work – 20 hours pouring over charts, marking shoals with yellow and red highlighters.

Saying, “I have the real thing,” though, is like standing on the dock looking out over the water excited about how beautiful it is on the shore. Why would you want to pour over dusty doctrine instead of enjoying the shore? For the same reason a sailor learns his charts. Yes, charts can be divisive – people will argue over which route to take. Yes, it is boring to turn from actual water to paper facsimiles of ocean. My son, who invested hours in those charts, agrees with you: Charts are boring.

They are also necessary. At least they are if you want to get someplace truly amazing. Standing at the dock is fine. But making landfall in Newport and seeing the great homes of the Gilded Age from the Sea is truly amazing…and you can’t get there without charts. Theology is our chart. Doctrine is the vetted, agreed upon experience of thousands who have sailed before – utterly necessary to go anywhere truly spectacular.


When we are young we think that what we want is to appropriate spiritual wisdom as it fits us, the way we would pluck entrees at a cafeteria, picking what “fits” us. But what we need is not a “spirituality” of our own contrivance, but to surrender ourselves to something, someone greater.

One can be vaguely “spiritual but not religious” on the humid shore in Annapolis, or you can venture into the open ocean and journey to the perpetual cool breezes of the Rhode Island summer. At Pentecost, Christians are empowered to get off the dock and experience the real thing. but doctrine is the chart warning us of the shoals, and pointing us toward deep waters. And the doctrine that really matters, the single doctrine that all other doctrine hangs on is the Trinity. Here is why:

We humans spend our lives answering the Great Questions…questions we hoped would get answered in college only to be told, “Don’t talk about that. Get a major that will score you a good paying job, here’s a beer and a condom, stop thinking so deeply!” But the Great Questions stalk us through life like store security follows suspected shoplifters. Those questions include…

  • Why am I here? (The God Question)
  • What went wrong? (The Pain Question)
  • How is it fixed? (The Salvation Question)
  • Who am I to be? (The Existential Question)

You might be surprised to find out that the early Christians camped out on the first question: Why am I here? The God Question. They realized that if one gets the God Question right, everything else works out. Unlike many other theological questions, the answer to the God Question is specific, agreed upon by all Christians: The God who made us is the One who reveals himself as a Tri-unity…one God in three Persons: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The God Question is how we ended up with the Nicene Creed. It took 300 years to articulate One God in three Persons. The Nicene Creed Christians recite is a very broad statement. All major branches of Christianity: Catholics, Protestants, Greek Orthodox, and Pentecostals…all stack hands on that really, really, really broad answer to the God Question. Unlike later confessions which sought to define what Christians should believe, the Nicene Creed is the least one must believe to be considered Christian by other Christians – the minimum admission to the Christian “playground” of the Holy Trinity. “Without the Trinity,” Christians say, “no harm, no foul, but you are just not one of this tribe.”

A later creed, the Athanasian Creed would elaborate…

“We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence.”

They are three and they are one. And they are both at the same time.

That matters because beliefs have outcomes. What we believe about God seeps into everything we are and do.

For example, a Mormon friend once asked me to read the book of Mormon and ask God if Joseph Smith is a true prophet. I said I would if they would return the favor and read Hebrews 1 about Jesus being the final revelation of the Father, and ask God if Joseph Smith might be a false prophet. That sounded fair to me, but my friend objected strenuously, “No!” I asked why. In exasperation my friend stammered, “What if God lies?” That sounds shocking to most ears, but when your God is an exalted human, as he is for my LDS friends, God telling a lie isn’t so crazy. But when your God is an uncreated being of infinite, complete and self-contained love…a being who shaped the cosmos out of a desire to share love, the joyful dance of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with humanity, well, deception is simply an unthinkable violation of that being’s very nature.

So yes, theology can be hard work. But is a good work. The question boils down to this: Will you be satisfied to have a narcissistic, humid little experience from the dock when the offshore adventure of eternity beckons?

Pull out the charts and do the work of learning the doctrines of the faith. They chart the boundaries of the journey of love that has sustained the generations. The captain of our souls invites you aboard.

Trinity Sunday Sermon Link


Your church isn’t supposed to “feed” you

This is cute. But we aren't babies.

This is cute. But we aren’t babies.

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I have lame Christiany-sounding excuse fatigue. Here is the latest: “I am leaving this church because it just doesn’t feed me.” Pardon me but your church is not supposed to “feed” you. It probably isn’t your fault, though. You were probably sold this bill of goods by the church that talked you into coming their way the last time you were feeling spiritually bored.

Consider the “feedlot” model: We pick a church, like we pick a restaurant…one that dishes up what we like and are in the mood for on a steaming plate set before us. Then we sit in judgment. “That was good this week.” Or perhaps, “That sermon was a little mushy, and cold…like overcooked broccoli, pastor.” We tip if the service was good and expect to go home full.

Yes, I do know the term “pastor” is the Greek word for “shepherd,” but shepherds protect sheep. Sheep eat for themselves. Besides, the Lord is our shepherd, not your pastor. Your pastor is a human not the Holy Spirit.

There is a legitimate role for pastors. It is found in Ephesians 4. Pastors have been given their gifts “ to equip the saints for the work of ministry.”

Consider God’s purpose in the giving of all of these gifted “apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers”: It was EQUIPPING YOU  “for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”  Rather than being passive recipients of a meal, this is a picture of a community sharing its gifts with one another as it engages in mission.

The early Christians had a love that “compelled” them into the world in invitation and self-emptying service (2 Cor. 5:13-15).  Please don’t bail out on your church because it doesn’t passively “feed” you. The church isn’t supposed to be a restaurant with waiters that pre-chew our food and dribble it into us like the SNL soft-teeth skit. It is supposed to be culinary school. Think about what culinary school gives someone: tools, knowledge, practice, confidence and helps you find a job cooking in the real world. Both visions of the church will change you: One will make you fat and passive. The other will change both you and the world as you serve it, adding flavor and taste to those around you.

So before you put a grotesque and distorted burden on your church, ask yourself how discipleship happened historically. Hint, it wasn’t sitting in a class memorizing gospel presentations or Bible verses on overcoming temptation. It was life on life: walking with Jesus. The disciples hung out around the fire with the Master for three years as he prayed, taught, modeled, questioned, healed, demonstrated, prayed some more and finally sent them to…”go make disciples” and to “obey all I have commanded.” Every bit of this was active.

This is possibly a very different model from your church. If your church is using you as a passive recipient of the staff’s teaching, doing all of the evangelism themselves and merely using you as an “inviter” and the sanctuary as an evangelism platform, then perhaps you might want to ask them to STOP feeding you! Ask them instead to start equipping YOU and the rest of the church to “do the work of ministry.”

So stop asking your church to feed you. Ask them to equip you.

If you like this you might like: The Church is Christ’s bride. Not his baby mama.

or: The church isnt a restaurant its culinary school

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

Plains, trains and automobiles

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.


Ballplayers Doing Brain Surgery: What might have been done in & about South Carolina Episcopalians.

In case you have not been following events between the Diocese of South Carolina and the Episocopal Church, here is a short version: South Carolina is very traditional in terms of biblical interpretation and marriage. The rest of the Episcopal Church tends not to be. A conflict, brewing for quite some time, came to a head a week ago when a “letter of restriction” was placed on the ministry of their bishop, preventing him from any ministerial duties during the investigation. This triggered automatic disaffiliation clauses South Carolina had put in place. The accusations involve two old charges that were previously dismissed and a new charge of abandoning the Episcopal Church by giving Quit Claim deeds to the churches in their diocese. The Episcopal Church has canon law saying that church property belongs to the national church, rather than the local body that built it. This seems counter-intuitive to non-denoms, but that is our polity. The whole thing is presumably now headed to court where years of lawsuits will consume millions of dollars given to the work of God. The following is a response to many questions as to “What would you have done?”

Jordan Haynie, Candidate for the priesthood in Fort Worth (and many others) had the following question:

“I do not think the Episcopal Church is as big a tent as we claim to be, nor are we as big as we want to be. But I do not think that is the issue here. Bishop Lawrence and the diocesan convention of South Carolina were making the moves to make it possible for them to leave. How should the Disciplinary Board of Bishops respond to actions like that? What do you recommend?”

Hi Jordan,

Thank you for joining the conversation. I am excited for you in your candidacy to Holy Orders.

I will give you my best shot at where the people I know in SC were coming from. I think it will be instructive as to how we got where we are, and then I’ll attempt my best shot at what I hope I would have done…

I am not a bishop, presiding bishop, or member of the disciplinary board. Asking me to solve this problem is a bit like asking a basketball player to perform your brain surgery. I have neither experience nor training, so I am weighing in on a subject that is far over my head so I wade into these waters with fear and trepidation.

Although I am not someone with authority, influence or power, I am a person whose primary friendships in our church, outside of my own diocese, are in the Diocese of California and the Diocese of South Carolina. My connections are primarily relational rather than theological. I am convinced that the great people I am friends with in the SF bay area would really appreciate the great people I am friends with in Charleston…on every subject minus one. And vice-versa. As my connections are relational, any solutions I attempt would be as well…and would have involved being in one-another’s world.

I did not understand Charleston until ministry took me to South Carolina three times. Because I have spent probably two weeks there, at their camp, diocesan office and with their youth ministers, I understood where they were coming from. Because I am not from there, I understand where we are coming from and our institutional need not to “give away the farm.”

I was on phone or text with friends during each of their “troubling” decisions. I can tell you that my diocesan friends in SC: a) wanted to remain in the Episcopal Church (unlike the four departing diocese’), b) were convinced that they were being attacked by the larger church, c) had voices in their midst that wanted to depart and d) were making their moves thinking they had both insured protection for their place in the church and maintained their own internal unity.

To the outside world, it was Tom Ferguson’s slow motion accident in the print shop he wrote about the other day on Crusty Old Dean. I could see how what they were doing made sense to them as a way to insure their continuance in the church…and that it would have the exact opposite effect with the rest of the church. Then I would talk to our people going to meetings to respond to SC and beg them to give room. We would then respond in equally predictable ways to insure our position was protected. In the end, like Tom as a teen in the print shop, I am too removed from the levers of power for my opinion to have any influence whatsoever. Unlike Tom, I do not think this was the way it is supposed to happen. I am not enough of a Calvinist I suppose – I think we all missed it. All of us.

People keep saying to me, “This is exactly what they were angling for.” There were those voices in SC. I do not believe Bishop Lawrence was one of those. I may be completely wrong. But if I am, he and his staff are the best liars I have ever met. What motive would they have had for being dishonest with a youth guy from Arizona…on multiple occasions over a four-year period?

Jordan, you asked what I would have done. I would have risked everything for unity. I think that was actually what the Quit Claim deeds were for a bishop whose rectors said, “We are with you because you will sue us.” Put yourself in his shoes for a few moments: Pawley’s Island had already gone against the diocese – making them the one diocese in which the courts have not sided with the us. I cannot imagine doing what Bishop Lawrence did, but bishop’s are under pressures that people who do not work in bishop’s offices do not see. What I was told was that Bishop Lawrence made an attempt to keep his diocese together on collegial bonds rather than canonical ones-which is the diocese’ understanding of what the courts in SC have said they wouldn’t uphold anyway. Like I say, I do not think I would have done what he did, but I my experience of bishop Lawrence is that, like my bishop, Kirk Smith, he is a straight-shooter. He was quite willing to say things to me he could assume I would not agree with.

I choose not to read motives into people on either side. I find it uncharitable. What is public is that Bishop Waldo and Bishop Lawrence were in dialogue with the Presiding Bishop. That was why I used the counselor’s office analogy in my previous post.

I tend to give bishops the benefit of the doubt – mainly because I work for one. I watch my bishop daily balance the needs of the larger church, the needs of congregations, the needs of individuals and what he is convinced is his proper response to the call of God. Being a bishop is complicated and he does the best he can as a follower of Christ, utilizing his experience and wisdom. And in that complexity, someone’s felt needs are usually thwarted. Win-win is often hard to achieve in a world of scarcity. So I give grace in my assessment of bishops.

I am not a Presiding Bishop either, so I want to be charitable with Katherine as well. None of us know the pressures that she is under institutionally. I do hope that I would have had the patience to let the attempts at reconciliation with Bishop Waldo work themselves out before presenting the restriction letter.

So, if I were bishop I hope I wouldn’t have given the Quit-Claim deeds…and I might have lost all of my cardinal parishes. If I were presiding bishop I hope I would have let the reconciliation process go on-in which case, I am sure that there are institutional needs of the larger church being met in the timing of the charges that we are not privy to…and I would guess I would have had a high price to pay for that action as well. If I were on the disciplinary board I hope that I would have looked at what was going on, asked questions, listened, expressed understanding as to the pressure the bishop was under. I then would have pointed out our ability and right to step in, then affirmed their right to differentiate. I would have asked the bishop what SC could do to show good faith that they wished to remain with us. I would hope I could have started with the assumption that we are on the same team…and remember that most bishops don’t really want to be congregationalists and ask more questions and then ask for them to throw us a bone…specifically to use more care in their language and to begin giving to things in the national church they could support in good conscience.

Would any of this have worked? I do not know. Maybe not. I’m just a basketball player. You are asking for brain surgery and that is way above my pay grade.