Friday, February 21, 2014

What About the Pope?

I went to Phoenix last week for three reasons: to see members of my family that live there, to preach at Living Streams church, and to meet a delegation from the Vatican.

I wanted to share some reflections about that third item.

For ten years, I pastored a church in Central Phoenix. So I have many friends there, including some of the city’s church leaders.  They were the ones who had invited me to a special meeting with Roman Catholic bishops Olmstead and Nevares; and, a Vatican delegation. The reason for the meeting was to discuss Pope Francis's request that Roman Catholic leaders meet with their Evangelical and Pentecostal counterparts.

The pope’s stated intention for such encounters is that Roman Catholics will experience a renewal in the Holy Spirit. He also believes that praying together will encourage healing between our communities.

During my Phoenix years, I worked extensively to create those kinds of connections among Christians. So I wouldn’t have missed that meeting for the world.

After arriving at Living Streams, where the meeting was held, pastor Mark Buckley welcomed us, Gray Kinneman outlined the meeting's purpose and then introduced Bishop Olmstean who read a letter from the Pope, specifically addressing the people in our meeting.

Here are some brief quotes from Pope Francis’s much longer letter.

“When people persecute the flowers of Jesus, they do not distinguish between the believers who are Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Evangelical, Pentecostal or Roman Catholic. Evil views us all the same. As a result, in many places of the world, our brothers in Christ have experienced an ecumenism of blood. They suffer in a unity that evil already acknowledges. We must persevere in prayer until this unity becomes a reality for us as well.

Please pray for me that I will be guided by the Lord to do what I can to bring healing and unity to His church.”

After the bishop read the pope’s letter, he introduced two Italians, one Pentecostal pastor and one Roman Catholic. The Pentecostal leader gave his testimony about how he had reluctantly entered into these discussions, and he had been shocked to see how intense some of the Roman Catholic leaders were about the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Vatican delegate added this:  

“A few years back, some Anglican priests got a few of us Roman Catholic priests together in a room and told us that we needed the baptism of the Holy Spirit. They laid hands on us and I was gloriously filled with the presence of God. I was so overjoyed, I went and pounded on the door of a Pentecostal pastor in our town. I shouted out to him – “I have been filled with the Spirit!”

He told me to come back some other time!

That hurt my feelings. Then I remembered how, just a few years ago, we had bitterly persecuted Evangelicals and especially Pentecostals. I realized it would take a lot of love, repentance and forgiveness to reconcile us after such serious crimes against our brothers. So we have continued to move forward in prayer and to do all we can to mend fences.

In the meantime, God has been doing some wonderful new things.

The pope had already been meeting with Pentecostal leaders in Argentina each month before he became pope. Since then, he has only deepened his conviction that it will take a genuine encounter with the Holy Spirit to bring reconciliation and restoration to the church. Intuitional structures certainly cannot do it. We are in desperate need of God. For that we need your prayer.”

I was overjoyed sitting in that room with the group of pastors I had known for twenty years. I couldn’t help but remember that fifteen years ago, a radio talk show host had denounced me on his show for ‘hobnobbing with Catholics.” A few weeks after that, had Henry Blackaby not come to my rescue in a minster’s breakfast, a group of Evangelical leaders would have joined the talk show host in publicly offering me the ‘left foot of fellowship.” Praying with Catholics just wasn’t done. It would not be tolerated.

External pressures were not the only impediment to forming friendships with Catholics. I had been a missionary kid in Latin America. I had witnessed first hand the kind of persecution this Vatican official had just publicly acknowledged.
I have had to work through a lot of internal pressure to form real friendships with Catholics, Orthodox, Copts, and even when meeting with types of Christians more familiar to us in our part of the world.

Furthermore, I am not a fan of the old Ecumenical movement. That movement seemed, to me anyway, based on the idea that our disagreements are not very important anyway, so lets just get along and be good social workers. The most disappointing partners in that movement were actually Protestants, who seemed ready at the drop of a hat to surrender every doctrinal belief they had ever professed for the sake of unity. In such discussions, it was actually the orthodox and the Catholics that won my respect.

Even so, our differences must be faced. The question is, “how?”
I believe the pope is right.  The way forward is prayer and spiritual renewal. God’s Spirit softness our hearts and opens the Word. In our Phoenix meeting for example, a major connection occurred when Gary Kinneman offered a brief reflection on Ephesians. His insight into the work of the cross in reconciliation resonated with everyone.

In my last blog, I wrote about Joel Osteen. I said that the things for which we often fault Joel are the fruit of Evangelicalism’s continual movement away from Word and Sacrament. We have gotten cute. Trendy. Cool. Savvy. Marketable.

And spiritually anorexic.

With all due respect, this brand of Evangelicalism has little to offer Roman Catholicism. In fact, I believe Catholic theology and sacramental structure is healthier and is more likely to survive into the future than the demythologized, secular, worship-as-pep-rally approach of contemporary Evangelical churches. But I do not say that they are not churches or that the people who attend them are not Christians.

Relationship allows us to critique, and helps us profit from the critique. Without relationship, it is no longer critique. It is merely criticism.

When I read John MacArthur’s book, Strange Fire, I actually agreed with much of what he said about the faults of Charismatic Christianity. Then I went to YouTube to watch his diatribe. I discovered that McArthur was not sure I was even a Christian. So I realize that he thinks he is taking a stand for the truth, but what it feels like is that he is just standing on me. It’s difficult to have a healthy conversation in that position.

Prayer, reading the Word together, eating lunch, carrying one another’s burdens – doing such things over time gradually forms relationships that allow us to tackle the difficult issues that divide us.
As the Vatican delegate acknowledged this week, persecution – even verbal abuse – simply doesn’t work. The wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God.

So then abides these things; faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.”

It never fails.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

What About Joel Osteen?

People love to talk about people, especially highly visible people.

The wind of social media can whip up the opinion of a grasshopper, turn it into a whirlwind, and topple an elephant.  Someone with too much time on his hands makes an unfounded and cruel accusation about someone he doesn’t know and counts on the rest of us to pass the babble on. That has made gossip much more lethal than in years past.

Christians like participating in this shark feeding, even if the victim is a fellow believer. It is something blatantly forbidden by the faith we profess and even has a technical name: bearing false witness. We like to do it anyway. So we do.

I am afraid of participating though.

I think when Jesus said “you will give account on the Day of Judgment for every idle word” and “what is said in secret will be declared from the housetop,” he may well have had Internet gossip in mind. So I try to delete hysterical email messages that sound too much like the old National Inquirer. Otherwise, they may seduce me into a toxic pastime. Its difficult to resist sometimes. Who wouldn’t want to know more about an exotic fruit that could add twenty years to one’s life or about how the secretary of state was once arrested for streaking in a college dormitory?

(I just now made that bit of gossip up but I fully expect to watch it circulate on the web tomorrow and hear a reporter ask the secretary of state if is it true the following day. I'm testing my hypothesis by putting it out there to see what happens.)

Anyway, back to my point: what about Joel Osteen?

One the surface, one would not have predicted that Joel Osteen would have become that controversial. He is a nice person. By all accounts this is not merely his public persona moreover, but is his private demeanor as well. He is inevitably polite, civil and winsome. What he says in his sermons is encouraging, enjoyable to hear, and helpful for the journey of life.

So what’s the fuss about?

Well, the people who dislike Joel Osteen believe he doesn’t say enough. They claim his messages are not good examples of the sort of Bible teaching one ought to expect from an equipped and seasoned pastor; he doesn't take definitive stands on the issues of the day; his polished style seems rehearsed, staged and designed for the theater or political platform rather than the pulpit; that sort of thing.

When people say things like that about Joel, I am inclined to agree. Perhaps that gives me enough credibility to ask, “so?”

St. Paul told us that God placed in the Body of Christ ‘different gifts for the profit of the whole.’ He told us that we should not fault a nose for not seeing or an eye for not hearing. The health of the body depends on the interaction of its various organs and counts on each of them to do what it is supposed to do.

In that light, it seems unfair to criticize Joel Osteen for doing what he does. Unless he preaches rank heresy – and to determine that would actually require someone to understand orthodoxy – or promotes unethical, immoral or illegal practices  -- which he does not – or does something else that clearly places him outside the boundaries of Christian ministry –whining about him seems utterly unfair and unhelpful.

Does what Joel do on TV count as a sufficient presentation of the gospel? Most of the time; probably not. But is what he says compatible with the gospel? Yes. Much more so in fact than the ranting preachers who wrap up the fish of their political ideologies in Bible paper or the religious ponzi scheme marketers that constantly raise money in order to develop campuses where they can make a living raising money.  Joel actually feeds the hungry. He helps poor people develop better lives. 

Maybe he should do more but what he does are things Jesus told us to do.

Ok. I personally like Joel Olsten.  I don’t often listen to his sermons and I don’t read his books. But I like him. I believe he is a Christian trying to carry out Christian ministry. 

I am also wiling to learn from him.

Recently, I learned that a huge percentage of people attending Joel’s church are from broken families and working class backgrounds. Their testimonies to reporters and researchers are pretty consistent: the church has been a refuge and second family for them. It has helped them rise out of their circumstances and into new lives. These people believe they found the Lord in Joel’s church and that the Lord has delivered them from their old mess. That counts for something in my book and is something I want to do too.

As a pastor, it is my fervent hope that these people are learning the fundamentals of Christian faith; that they are becoming true disciples of Christ. Who, however, will determine that?

The loss of Christian catechism in the last many decades – call instruction in the faith whatever you want -- has been catastrophic. Many really good preachers now seem unaware of the basics of Christian theology, church history or even the stories of the Bible. From what I have seen, Joel may well fit into that category. But if he does, he is hardly alone. What did we expect? We have been steadily transforming pastoring into business management, spirituality into pop psychology, and worship into entertainment. When choosing a pastor, “successful” churches usually relegate the skills of scriptural exegesis and spiritual discernment to ever increasingly lower levels of hiring preference. A great pastor can get by without knowing much about the Book of Romans but he cannot survive without knowing how to tweet. Joel may be the product of this culture we raised him in but he cannot be faulted for it.

In the end, I think Joel is probably doing what he ought to do. He is giving sound encouraging words to millions of people, believer and unbeliever alike. He is helping lift people out of despair. That is a gift of healing. He is also teaching preachers to smile – that can’t hurt anything! Perhaps if the likes of John McArthur would smile a little more it would make their sound biblical exegesis a bit more bearable and appealing. If being hateful is what it takes to be prophetic and biblically faithful, then perhaps a smile might break the essential character of their gospel witness; but who knows, maybe not.

Perhaps what we ought to do is simply thank Joel for doing what he does, step up to the plate, and provide what we believe is missing from his presentation. It is entirely possible that someone who has been listening to Joel may soon be ready to study the Book of Hebrews. If so, then some teacher better start preparing himself for that moment. And it won’t help to begin that study with a diatribe against Joel. A simple “thank you’ might be more in order and might make the student think the teacher is a Christian.

If I could only prove that Joel Osteen was once an ax murderer or the member of the mafia, this blog might go viral.  That would help my writing career considerably. If I just had the stomach to go on a rant about his deficiencies, my fellow Christians might promote my words and increase my reading constituency. But then there is that scary warning from Jesus about idle words that gives me pause.

Sometimes practicing Christianity is just not very practical.

Now please excuse me while I go practice smiling.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Talking About An Unknown God in Times of Transition

 I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love;
I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true,
It satisfies my longings as nothing else would do.

I love to tell the story,
’Twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story
Of Jesus and His love.
 Athens is haunted.  When I visited there, I felt the presence of ghosts at every turn. It is the soul of the Western World. How can one not be overwhelmed in the place where we were conceived?
I wanted to stand on Mars Hill, like St. Paul. It was hard to imagine that he too had been overwhelmed, standing on the spot where Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had walked. Being a Greek-speaking Roman was reason enough to be moved by the experience but he was also a Jew, a man taught to detest idolatry.
How could Jew not be offended? The contents of Athens’s temples spilled into the streets, pouring out statues of gods, goddesses, fauns, and the half-bred human offspring of gods. Such things were everywhere. 
Perhaps he thought he would get a break on Mars Hill, a place where philosophers and scholars discussed loftier things that those crass artifacts of popular religion. But no, there too were reminders of every imaginable kind of deity.
Athens both exited and vexed Rabbi Saul, Greco-Roman Jew that he was. The idolatry might have provoked him to shout in prophetic rage against the Athenians.  Other Jews had done it and would do it again.
So why didn’t he denounce Athens? Why didn’t he tell the Athenians that their culture amounted to nothing; that everything they valued would soon melt under the fierily judgment of an angry God?
Well, the reason was simple: he had just arrived from Thessaloniki. He had tried to share new things about God there with people he thought were his friends. In response, several of them had organized a mob. They created create such a ruckus that Paul and Silas had to leave.
Fortunately, the synagogue in nearby Berea welcomed the weary preachers. Their relief was short-lived though. Jews from Thessaloniki followed them and stirred up the crowds there too.
After all of that, it had become impossible for Paul to believe that professing believers were more open to the Word of God than Pagans. That’s why he was in no mood to fight with the people of Athens. So he didn’t come to Athens as a Jewish zealot.
All of his religious certainly had been knocked out of him.
He was conflicted though. How could he just stand in the middle of the idols without saying anything about it?
He was just vexed for a while, not knowing what to do or what to say.

Then he saw an altar. It was unclaimed by the likes of Athena or Poseidon. The deity for whom this altar had been built and maintained was not yet known in Athens. That altar comforted Paul. Like Abraham after the battle of the kings, who paid tithe to Melchizedek, priest of El Shaddai, Paul made a theological shift.  Abraham had recognized the face of Yahweh in his mysterious Canaanite host, just as Paul now recognized the glow of God’s Shekinah on that empty altar.
That altar might not have moved Paul before his experiences in Thessaloniki. Now it seemed to make a lot of sense. But in what sense could a Jew admit that God was unknown?
When serving as a Rabbi, Saul of Tarsus had certainly known who God was. Then, on the road to Damascus, he had lost all his religious confidence. Otherwise, why would a Rabbi have ever have asked Yahweh, “Who are you Lord?”
Paul’s journey teaches us something important: Even when God is known he remains unknown.  Our spiritual journey continually forces us out of certainties about God into new certainties. Then, those certainties too began to unravel. God continually woos us beyond old idols and images into ever new visitations with the ineffable Spirit, the Creator Spirit, the One who made us for Himself – all of us, from every nation under heaven.
That is the great truth that had first moved St. Paul to become the apostle to the Gentiles. Now took his insight to an entirely new level.
“I want to tell you something about this god you have been worshiping without knowing.” Paul says.
Then he takes as radical a leap as one can imagine for a Jewish apologist. He tells the Athenians that their unknown god is none other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. By so doing, Paul becomes a new Abraham, recognizing God’s presence at work in that pagan context. Paul stands beside an altar built by pagans and claims it on behalf of the one for whom it had been ignorantly built. The priest of the altar had arrived and began to plant the kingdom of God at the very heart of the Western World.
“God was not offended in the past by your efforts to worship with him, although he forbids us to make statues of him as you have innocently done. Furthermore, He is not really unknown, as you seem to think,” Paul said.
Paul draws here on what we would later call the doctrine of common grace, the idea that our God, who sends rain on both the just and the unjust, grants spiritual insight to all people everywhere. His insight is why we Christians have historically believed the Holy Spirit to be at work even where Christ is not yet named, preparing the nations to accept the Good News of the Gospel.
Paul extends this concept of common grace to include even the ancestors of the Athenians to whom he was preaching.
“God was at work back then too,” Paul claims.
“Certain of your poets have written a great truth about God when they said ‘in him we live, we move and have our being.’ So we are all the offspring of God – you as well as the Jewish people – all of us. That means that God is not as distant as you have thought. I have come here to tell you that this same God has established a day when He will judge the world in righteousness. He will do this through a Man he ordained by raising Him from the dead.”
When they heard about the resurrection, some laughed. But please notice that they laughed; they did not rage as his fellow believers had in Thessaloniki. They didn’t drive Paul out of the city. Furthermore, some did not laugh. Some wanted to hear more. Some believed. Two Athenians even joined Paul’s missionary party.
In a way, it doesn’t matter that the Athenians misunderstood Paul’s sermon, that they didn’t even register the the name “Jesus.” They had heard Paul say the word 'Anastasias’ and thought that was the name of Paul’s God. And in a way, they were right.  Who is Jesus after all if not resurrection?
Let’s take some comfort from that. We all see as through a glass darkly, but what we see in that glass is enough for us to begin our spiritual journey.
Paul had not meant to be so congenial in Athens. He had actually gone to Greece to “tell the old, old story to those who knew it best.” But he quickly learned that his fellow believers were not “longing to hear it like the rest.”
I think I understand what he felt. I love the old, old story too. I love it best in those forms in which I first encountered it. The songs and testimonies; the outlandish preachers who dramatized the Bible stories with spellbinding, if not always accurate applications to everyday life -- I love all of that. I would have rather stayed there, wallowing in the comfort of my old, old story.
Unfortunately, many of the people to whom I would have most enjoyed telling that old, old story were not that interested. So I began to preach to Rwandans, Taiwanese, Nepalese, Nigerians and Kurds. I began preaching to pagans and addicts, to people who didn’t know my songs.  They didn’t know who Jonah or Samson were. And yet, they have returned to listen, and, in many cases, to believe.
Like Paul, I have had to ask a question: where is God most unknown? Is it in those places that build an unclaimed altar in the midst of their deities? Or is it in those places where people decide they have already heard all they need do hear about God and have nothing more to learn?
 My old hymns make no sense to many of the people I now pastor. They cannot begin to understand the King James Version of the Bible, which I will probably die quoting.
Many of you are in similar situations and you hardly know what to do next.
Finding ourselves thrust into this newly globalized world makes us feel as though we are in exile, trying to sing the song of the Lord in a strange land.
We must look for unclaimed altars and unfamiliar poets on which we can hang the words of Zion, and connect with people who swim in God without knowing who he is. We must find our voice in a strange new world. But what finally comes out of our mouths, foolish and inadequate though it is, can sanctify a place and a time where people meet the Living God and prepare themselves for that day God has appointed to judge the world in righteousness.
Perhaps it is the least known stanza of the old hymn that reveals the main reason believers since Paul have ventured into strange new territories, snuck past their own dragons of imagination, and find new words and new connections through which to spread the gospel of Christ:

I love to tell the story, more wonderful it seems
Than all the golden fancies of all our golden dreams;
I love to tell the story, it did so much for me,
And that is just the reason I tell it now to thee.

A sermon prepared for David Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tenn. February 15, 2014