July 2017

Five hundred years ago men like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin transformed the western world.  Today we refer to their revolution as the Protestant Reformation.  The Reformation was a necessary time of theological diversity and transformation.  While it is easy to think of the Reformers as trail-blazers, it is important to note that the Reformers never considered themselves to be innovators, but instead intended to return the Church to its original practice and purpose. 

Over generations of Christian practice and tradition Roman Catholicism had developed a few theological barnacles that stubbornly clung to the hull of the Church.  Over time the traditions can become so present in the work of an organization that they begin to become part of the structure of the organization.  To seek to remove them seems like you are cutting out an essential part of the work.  It takes a skilled physician to cut out the cancer without also destroying the body.  For that reason the Reformers sought to be both biblical and reasonable. 

Luther’s appeal to Rome in his 95 Theses was both logical and scriptural.  His manner of debate was not as dramatic as we have made it, but in many ways no different than a college student posting a document for discussion on a dorm floor cork-board.  Nailing the document seems needlessly confrontational, but let’s for a moment recognize that post-it notes had not yet been invented. 

Unfortunately Luther had chosen a topic that the Church did not want to discuss, much less debate.  The offense wasn’t the scars in the wood but the sore spot touched by Luther’s inquiry.  The indulgences that Luther had railed against were a big money maker for the Catholic Church and it was money that they both wanted and needed for the building projects they sought to continue.  The Church had been caught in a web of greed and deceit, but instead of acknowledging their sin they attacked their accuser.  Luther had wandered into politically correct territory, and like our inquiring collegian, he found himself against a politically correct administration that sought not to seek the truth, but to destroy the opposition. 

The Catholic Church’s response to Luther inadvertently stoked the flames of resistance in Germany and around the Western world.  Luther developed deep relationships with many German knights and the noble class who soon began to rally in support of Luther and voice opposition to Roman control of the German people.  Who knows what would have happened had the Church simply listened and responded to the inquiries of a sincere critic and would-be saint?  Sadly the lack of Christian love quickly turned a principled debate into a shooting war and the Church was broken into many pieces by the conflict.

Luther and his fellow reformers are the “heroes” of the story to each of us who attend Protestant Churches, but sadly the path that they began has led us to a place of deepening division.  As people began to question the traditions of the Church and discern the Biblical foundations for Christian thought and practice, the schisms that began with the Catholic Church continued to extend throughout the entire denominational structure.  The Church would soon discover that without the control of an authoritative body, every theological distinction would eventually spawn a new denomination. 

The earliest sign of trouble occurred in 1529 when Prince Philip of Hesse sought to create a formal treaty between the various Protestant leaders and their cities.  Gathering at the Colloquy of Marburg, the Reformers discovered that they agreed on fourteen of the fifteen issues discussed.  For most people going 14 for 15 would be a clear sign of unity, but for Luther it was a sign that, “we are not of the same spirit.”  The one place of disagreement was based on their conflicting understanding of how Jesus was present in communion.  Luther held to the traditional Catholic understanding of a physical presence in the bread and the wine, while men like Zwingli and Martin Bucer saw the presence of Christ in the elements as symbolic.  It is painfully ironic that the Church could not find harmony at the Communion table.  Philip was unable to broker the peace between the cities and their leaders.  The representatives from the Protestant strongholds returned home agreeing to disagree. 

This created the first, but not the last, separation between the Protestants and gave rise to the growth of the two main branches of Protestantism: the Lutheran and the Reformed tradition.  Anabaptists would create yet another branch of separation, and soon every theological distinction had the potential to create another schism within the Church.

What began as an attempt to cure Roman Catholicism and the Pope of its wayward theology, soon began to separate believers on the basis of any and every theological disagreement.  The danger of giving people the opportunity to decide for themselves is that eventually…they will.  The ability to determine our own theology and articulate our individual faith soon (and naturally) caused us to articulate our differences with greater emphasis than we did our places of agreement.  No one publishes a treatise that agrees with modern dogma.  The really juicy books, the ones that are remembered and bring fame and renown to their authors, are written by the dissidents.

Theological disagreements and the resulting political fallout resulted in an age of warfare that pitted Christian against Christian, with each disagreement escalating the conflicts.  The end result was that Europe, once the center of Christian culture, grew to resent the violent legacy of the Church.  What had once unified a Continent now was blamed for generations of European conflict.   Sadly, in large part due to the high levels of conflict displayed by the Church over the ages, western Europeans in the modern era have thoroughly rejected the Church of Jesus Christ. 

If the western world is going to be Christian again then it is time for a new Reformation of the Church. Once again we must attempt to discover the original intention of the Church.  Once again we must seek to removes the barnacles off the hull of the Church.  It will demand careful hands and pure hearts.  It will demand that those who attempt to move forward are empowered by the Holy Spirit and evidence the fruits of faith, hope and love.

Allow me to offer a very simple thesis. 

We can start by reframing our questions.  For 500 years we have been providing answers to questions that people are no longer asking.  The question of Eucharistic “presence” is no longer the primary question of our day, but many people are seeking the presence of God in their lives and in our world. How can we help them find that presence?  Interestingly many people are embracing the mystery of the Church in a new way.  This embrace of mystery is in many ways a rejection of the surety that was sought during the reformation and the enlightenment periods of our history and has reached a philosophical dead end in our technological age.  In an age that can explain everything and deconstructs the very atoms that make us who we are, the most captivating questions that we can ask may be “what is love” and “how can we live in community together.”
 
The gospels answer these questions.  Jesus provides simple questions, who is my neighbor and how many times should I forgive, as guideposts for the primary questions of the Church.  Jesus helps us to sort out the issues of love and grace, forgiveness and judgement, sacrifice and fellowship.  These are the questions that we need the answers for today.  But we cannot simply state the answer, we must live it.  We must become the standing stones that are written about by Peter.  We must show the world our faith by giving to them our (agape) love.   We must learn to forgive our neighbor seventy times seven times daily.  We must learn to take the quid pro quo promise of the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”) seriously. 

What I am sharing with you is not new.  It is not a unique idea.  Yet it will cause us consternation and foment criticism because it undermines the traditions that have built up like barnacles in our lives. 

God sent His Son to live and love sacrificially and to die for the sake of sinners yet unborn.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God has also sent the body of Christ (us) into the world to live and love sacrificially and to bear witness to the work of God in Jesus Christ.  The world will know us by our love.  It is time for a love reformation. 

Will you nail this upon the doors of your heart and proclaim it to the world?

Pastor Dan
 

 

May 2017

When the founding fathers of the United States of America set out to forge a new nation, they did so with deep conviction and clear purpose.  Even a cursory reading of the Declaration of Independence will show you that they knew what they were doing, they understood the consequences, and they were able to articulate their reasons.  The American Revolution was in many ways a “Purpose-Driven” Revolution.  In other words, they not only knew what they were against, they knew what they were for.
 
This Purpose-Driven Revolutionary spirit is what separated the American Revolution from its French counterpart.   While both Revolutions sought to gain freedom from a tyrannical monarch, the American Revolution was unique in that the revolutionaries struggled toward a positive vision, while the French Revolutionaries revolted against the King.  While the American Revolution concluded with an enduring Constitutional government in place, the French Revolution plunged France into a period of violent chaos.  Instead of finding the freedom they desired, the French Revolution resulted in one group killing the other until a new dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte, arose from the ashes.
 
The tale of two revolutions shows us the advantage of a Purpose Driven movement.   History shows us that having a positive vision for the future works a lot better than rebelling against the previous regime or way of doing things.  Sadly, many within the Church, and in America, still engage in the destructive pattern of rebellion without positive vision. 
 
My favorite passage of the Declaration of Independence is a very simple statement of political purpose and vision.  It is likely the most well-known passage of this important document.  The passage is both tactical and practical and can serve as a guide for determining the values of the founders if understood correctly.
 
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.-That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
 
In these two (albeit complex) sentences the founders set the whole of the American experiment into motion.  They articulated a positive vision of the foundations of government, with a radical new way of seeing power and its use.  No longer was governmental power to be used for the advantage of the powerful (the government: be it a Kingdom or Democracy), but in order to secure the basic God-given rights for the citizenry.  And what are these rights?  They are rightly ordered as Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness; for a government that cannot secure its people in the land cannot preserve liberty.  A government that cannot secure the freedom to name and claim our individual destiny cannot promise to us the ability to pursue our dreams and goals.
 
The Constitution continued in the proclamation of the positive principles of the founders.  The principles are found throughout the Constitution, but are explicitly stated in the Bill of Rights, which articulated the sacred rights of the individual.  The founders made it clear what the values and the principles of the nation were.  The founders believed that the ultimate authority should be given, not to the government, but to the governed.  For this reason restrictions were placed not on the citizenry, but on the federal government.  It is because of these statements of purpose that we can assert our individual rights from the encroachment of governmental interference.  While the tension between the state and the individual is at times palpable, the Constitution sides with the rights of the free.
 
I am sharing this with you for one PURPOSE.  In every good Purpose Driven plan there must be a clear understanding of positive priorities.  Only in understanding the positive purposes of the Church can we successfully navigate the turbulent waters of 21st Century ministry.  As we are pulled in different directions we consistently fall into the trap of trying to be all things to all people.  The attempt to be universal in scope (with ever decreasing resources) creates the image of failure in most churches, as most of us are unable to be successful in all areas of life and ministry.  Churches faced with the realities of decreasing resources and increasing need must endeavor to create a set of priorities so that we might target our resources to effective places of ministry. 
 
This is happening today, even in the bloated federal government, as our nation is now forced to make clear choices as to priorities and purposes (though we are loath to accept this reality).  In this same way First Baptist Church must make our priorities in ministry understood and help people to articulate the direction of what we might accomplish through the work of God in Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit.  To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, we must rightly order the word of Truth in our lives. 
 
In order to rightly order we must first acknowledge the need for choices.  We must also seek the knowledge of ourselves and the scripture to determine what we might be called to accomplish here at First Baptist Church.  We must ask the tough questions; of ourselves and our Church.  Do we have the correct ministry priorities here at First Baptist?  Do we know what they are or even how we can discover them?  Have we been chaotic in our call to ministry (reacting to the “squeaky wheel” or the loudest voice) or do we know the positive rationale for our actions?
 
It is interesting to note that both the nation and the Church seem to be experiencing a common period of struggle concerning our identity and purpose.  We must resist the temptation to react negatively to the difficulties we face.   The wise men and women who created our sacred structures of Church and Government would seem to direct us to another path: to seek the truth and create a positive vision of transformative change for ourselves and our posterity, based on values consistent with our founding principles.
 
First Baptist Church is currently working to articulate our ministry priorities for the coming months.  We are asking you to join us in this process.  Part of this will be to join us at our Annual Meeting, after Church on Sunday, June 12.   In order to truly set the course for First Baptist we must know the passions, priorities and purposes of not only the leadership, but also the membership of the Church.
 
It is within the intersection of our priorities, passions, and purposes that we will find the direction that God has for our lives and our Church.  Thom Rainer, in his book Breakout Churches, refers to this as the Vision Intersection Profile.  This “VIP Factor” represents the common foci of the passions of the Church’s leadership, the Gifts of the Congregation, and the Needs of the Community.  When these are understood, then the direction becomes clear.  When these are connected they can create a bulls-eye for ministry development.  It is the goal of First Baptist Church and our leadership to hit the divinely targeted bulls-eye in the months and years to come.
 
Striving To Hit The Mark,
Pastor Dan
 

April 2017

Once again Easter is on the horizon.  Easter of course is one of the principle holy days of the Church year, but it has been the “red-headed step-son” to its more popular big brother, Christmas, for the past several decades.  Easter is not the economic engine that Christmas has become.  The season before Easter is not accompanied by outlandish spending and lavish decorations, but a return to austerity and thrift.  We give things up for lent, we fast and pray.  While most people gain weight during the Christmas season, by the time we get to Easter we are all on a diet.  If Christmas is typified by jolly and happy behaviors that cause us to spend extravagantly, Easter is when the bills come due.  Easter is about God addressing the consequences of human behavior and sin.
 
It should not surprise us that Easter suffers in comparison to Christmas.  The secularized version of Easter has not translated well into the digital age.  The Easter basket is not a sufficient delivery system for our gift giving appetites and the boiled egg pales in comparison to the candy cane.  Once Reese’s came up with the Christmas tree version of their peanut butter egg, there was nothing that Easter had that Christmas couldn’t match in a secularized world. 
 
Easter suffers from a particularly messy back-story.  The story of Easter includes, betrayal, abandonment, a full on scourging, and a public execution; none of which translate well into whimsical family fare.  These aspects of the story may explain why Charles Schulz’ Easter special (It’s The Easter Beagle Charlie Brown) contains none of the cultural or spiritual resonance of the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  One can quote the birth narrative from the gospel of Luke at Christmas time and still get an airing on broadcast television, the Passion narratives just don’t connect as well with a mass audience. 
 
The world, and even many of us in the Church, would like to ignore the blood of Christ and the sacrifice of Calvary.  We seek to gloss over the bloody story of the crucifixion of Jesus, and metaphorically move from the birth of the Christ child to his glorious resurrection without the threat of Herod or the Cross of Rome. Some Churches simply skip the crucifixion of Jesus entirely and move directly from Palm Sunday to Easter, without ever truly meditating on the death of Jesus on Good Friday.  When I left the Catholic Church as a youngster, I heard my Protestant friends rail against the presence of Jesus on the Crucifixes and Crosses displayed in Catholic and Orthodox Churches around the world.  Now thirty plus years later I must question whether our empty crosses truly tell the story of God’s triumph over death or simply keep us from acknowledging the real cost of that triumph; the suffering and death of God’s son. 
 
We instinctively turn away from the Cross of Jesus Christ.  By doing so we allow ourselves the ability to frame Easter as we choose.  We can focus on the rebirth of all life and the seasonal changes of Spring, while ignoring the true meaning of Jesus’ parable of the seed that must be buried in the ground in order that it might bring forth life.  We allow ourselves the pleasures of life, without ever confronting the wages of sin and the inevitability of death.
 
The gospels, however, do not allow us to easily turn the Easter story into a meditation on the rites of Spring or the renewal of the earth through seasonal changes.  The gospels place the story of Jesus into a real-world context of danger and violence.  The sword and the cross are an ever present reality in the story of Jesus as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
 
The gospel narratives betray the truth to those of us who prefer the baby Jesus to the Rabbi who took up His cross and died on a hill called Golgotha.  The Christmas story is sparsely told in the gospels and is completely ignored by both Mark and John.  In contrast over a third of the gospel narratives focus specifically on the last week of Jesus’ life.  The same gospel writers who do not name the Inn Keeper who offer Joseph and Mary a place in the stables specifically name the man who is called from the crowd to help Jesus carry his cross.  The writers who never give us the names or even the number of Me Magi who travel from the East to visit the Christ child feel compelled to share with specificity the two men who petition Rome for the right to retrieve the body of their slain Messiah for burial.  The details of the story betray the importance that the authors placed in this particular moment of history.
 
In the same way, Paul, Peter, and John do not write letters reminding the new-born Church of the glory of the Savior’s birth.  Instead they continually and persistently emphasize the death and resurrection of the suffering servant.  The Apocalypse does not envision Jesus as the lamb who was born of a virgin, but as the Lamb who was slain.  The universal symbol of the Church was never the sign of the stable, nor was it a crown and a scepter, nor even the empty tomb.  Instead we have inherited the Cross as the sign of our faith and the crown that we remember is one woven in thorns.  The scepter that Jesus experiences is a police baton used to pummel the King of Kings.
 
Regardless of the importance of the moment to the Church, we must acknowledge that Easter does not hold the universal appeal of the birth of the promised child.  Easter contends against the assumptions of the world.  Easter reminds us that we are not as good as we aspire to be.  It tells us that evil and death are not aberrations in our world.   It reminds us that, regardless of what history might say, it was not the Romans or the Jews who truly crucified Jesus the Christ.  We are the ones who crucified Christ and it was for ME that Jesus died. 
 
Most of us KNOW this.  Why then do we attempt to turn away from the story?  Why do we cover it over with visions of Easter Bunnies and jelly beans?  Why do so many Christians want to remove Jesus from the Cross during the celebration of Easter and yet find no problem keeping him in the crèche at Christmas?
 
Paul wrote in the decades following the death and resurrection of Jesus that the Cross of Christ is both offensive and foolishness to the world.  It still is.  No matter how hard we try to tame the story or celebrate the empty tomb, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection still makes us… well... feel bad.  It forces us to embrace both death and grief.  It forces us to recognize that we are not worthy, that we are sinners in need of God’s grace, that it was our sin that caused Jesus to take up His cross, that as the old preacher once put it, “we drove the nails.”
 
Easter has always been, and will always be, a hard sell for the world around us.  Perhaps that is the point.  Christmas is attractive.  It is about light and joy and glory.  Angels sing and shepherds dance.  Easter is far more sober affair.  Easter forces us to reckon with the darkness and sweat it out with the Lord at Gethsemane.  Easter forces us to take a ringside seat as God allows evil to take a few hard rights and jolting lefts at the defenseless Son of God.  Christmas causes the heavens to open with light and song, while Easter is a series of earthquakes that split the earth and eventually open the tomb itself.
 
We rarely respond well to a story that portrays us as the villain.  That does not make the story any less true.  It is not our responsibility to determine how the world receives the story.  It is simply our job to tell it.  Over and over again.  To share it as the scriptures reveal it to us.  To present the deep love of God expressed in the life and sacrificial death of Jesus, the Son of God.  To share the grace of God that allows that sacrifice and the blood of Jesus to cover the sins of all who would repent and accept the Lordship of Christ.  To tell the story of the glory of God revealed in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day. 
 
So tell it we shall.  Please join us as we tell the old, old story once again this year in our many Holy Week services.
 
In Christ,
Pastor Dan