Tag Archives: America

Be The Church!

Like others, I am tired of turning on the news only to hear that another mass-shooting has occurred. With the most recent shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio taking place within twenty-four hours of each other, it seems as if such violence has become an epidemic. Maybe that’s more perception than reality but nonetheless what is reality is the fact that more innocent lives were harmed and killed.

It is beyond me to understand how anyone could so maliciously plot and carry out a deadly attack on other people. Yes, I am aware of the anger and extremism, the hatred and racism, the mental health and emotional trauma, and the many other factors that come into play, including the easy access to certain firearms — assault weapons designed simply to kill with efficiency. I’m frustrated that elected officials just keep offering their “thoughts and prayers” without undertaking any reasonable solutions. I’m frustrated that, fifty-one years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., racism still has a grip on America and my frustration doesn’t end there. As a White person, I am also frustrated with many White people who either don’t seem to care about racism or seek to downplay it and even want to disassociate from the racism (a White privilege), failing to see how systematic racism still exists even if they don’t personally discriminate against any person of color. And if the truth be told, maybe I have been one of those White people too. I try not to be but I am a sinner too.

So what can I do?

What can we do?

As followers of Jesus, what must we do?

Be the church!

I know, I know… It sounds simple and even trite because for far too long “church” has been nothing but a place where people gather on Sundays. Our traditional understanding of Church in the west has often become an impotent caricature of the ekklēsia that Jesus called us to be as his followers. It’s the reason why many of the Sunday parishioners “go to church” and then leave an hour later as the same people they were before and as the same people they were when they first started going to church many years ago. Let’s be honest, this understanding of church is a place for people to sing songs about Jesus, hear a message about Jesus, and pray but not necessarily follow Jesus. I’m not against singing, preaching, and praying but such worship loses its way when those gathering for “church” leave only to sound more like an echo-chamber of whatever news-pundit they listen too as they continue pursuing a life shaped more by their own individualistic desires.

But that is not what I mean when I say “Be the church!” What I mean is hopefully a little more profound because it is about following Jesus and serving as a living embodiment of the gospel Jesus proclaimed. That means living as a people who gather, in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Spirit, with others, including people of other colors, nationalities, social-political viewpoints than our own. As we gather together, we do so as people learning to be practitioners of the Jesus way (discipleship) in which we embrace each other with love. This is a love that is full of the grace and truth that opens space for us to confront our sin with repentance and forgiveness so that we all may journey forward as reconciled brothers and sisters. This love is a fellowship in Christ that we have pledged ourselves to in baptism and that we continuously acknowledge together in the Eucharist. This vision of church, which Jesus has called us to be, is one that bears witness to an alternative kingdom — the reign of God — and becomes the beacon of light in a society shrouded in darkness.

This is the kind of church we are called to be and it is this kind of church that I believe God is working among to offer hope in the midst of despair and peace in the midst of violence. That’s why I posted on Facebook the other day this word for pastors, saying:

Pastors, the best response to a society boiling over with hatred and violence is for you to cultivate a living embodiment of the gospel among the church you serve so that there will be a community bearing witness to the way of peace in Christ.

This kind of church doesn’t effect change like a tsunami crashing upon the shore. Rather, it is a patient approach that doesn’t force its way of life on others but becomes such a beautiful portrait that others are captivated by it and want to become a part of this life. It is a life that flows from the prayers of those who are committed to living. So I leave us with the Peace Prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

The Church: God’s New Future Unleashed

It isn’t any secret that Christianity in the United States is facing some challenges. In a post-Christendom society churches are getting smaller and even closing. There are likely many reasons for this but that is also why there continues to be a market for books on growing churches, connecting with the unchurched, and reaching the next generations (Millennials, iGeneration, etc…).

Now I love reading and have nothing against such books per se. However, when we open our Bible up to the book of Acts, what we have is a summons to receive the Spirit so that we may fully live life as a follower of Jesus. That’s what repentance and baptism is (Acts 2:38). Nothing said about growing churches, reaching the next generation and so forth, just a summons to repentance and baptism. That’s because the way we participate in the kingdom and journey on mission with God is by the power of the Spirit under the authority of Jesus Christ. That is, we submit our lives to Jesus and are formed by the Holy Spirit to live life as Jesus lived.

Luke gives us a description of what happened with the community of believers in Jerusalem when they responded to this summons. Acts 2:42-47:

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

I believe we should read this as a description rather than a prescription. In other words, rather than trying reduplicate or mirror everything we read exactly as we think it was done then, Luke’s description is meant to evoke our own imaginations. What might happen when we allow the Holy Spirit to (re)form us as people living in the name of Jesus?

The answer to that question will vary from one local community to another, though I do believe that there will be some commonalities. Commonalities like remaining committed to apostolic teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer, as well as demonstrating the goodness of God — loving God, loving neighbor — to everyone. The result will always be putting into motion the kingdom way of life that Jesus proclaimed and faithfully lived, even to the point of being put to death on the cross. It is a way of life shaped by the cruciform-character and kingdom-oriented life of Jesus.

Bottom line, what we read in Acts is what happens when we are formed by the Spirit to live as faithful followers of Jesus. As a church on mission with God, we become the new future that God has unleashed into the present.

Let’s be this church! 

Table Manners: Tomáš Halík and Cultivating Culture

Everyone knows that American society as a culture is undergoing massive changes. Like it or not, the social-political, religious, and economical landscape of America is different than it was twenty years ago and the end of this metamorphosis taking place appears nowhere in sight. The one certain descriptor is that America is a pluralistic society with a wide-ranging set of beliefs and values. Our understanding of the Christian faith and the sort of life that defines for us is just one understanding among many. So what shall we do?

I’ve been reading Night of the Confessor by Tomáš Halík, an ordained Catholic Priest in Czechoslovakia who once worked as a psychotherapist. In the tenth chapter, titled “God Knows Why,” Halík is getting at the different and often complex questions that people are asking. In response, he writes:

“We shouldn’t let banal questions (or only seemingly banal questions?) provoke us into giving banal answers. The self-assured gesture of evangelical Christians who place a Bible on the table in response is rather tawdry in its theatricality. The old saying “It says it in the Bible so it must be true” is not so easy to apply in this case. We are confronted by a whole set of specific questions that did not confront the people of the Bible, and if we substitute our problems for theirs, and relate answers to other questions to our own problems, then it is not the ‘Bible itself’ that speaks from our words, but instead our all-too-human manipulation of God’s word — and such manipulation is unavowed, unthinking, and often simpleminded. Such overuse and ab-use of the Bible is irresponsible not only vis-à-vis Scripture, but also toward those with whom we still have sufficient credit for them to invite us to dialogue and joint quest.

…There is only one realm that can, to a certain extent, be formed and influenced by the decisions of parliamentarians and individual consciences, and that is the ‘moral climate’ of society, which is a somewhat broader concept than “public opinion” (that other pretender to the throne of infallibility). The moral and spiritual climate of society can cultivate public debate — but again only to a certain extent. That is where believers should be involved, as competent partners respecting the rules of dialogue and conscientiously using all the resources at their disposal: Scripture and reason, tradition and the study of present-day sources of knowledge, awareness of responsibility before God and people, and the thoughtfulness that prayer and meditation confer on human reflection and behavior. (pp. 134-135)

Now if you’re scratching your head and wondering what he is saying, don’t fret. I had to read this again very slowly and think about it. What Halík is saying is that society is asking questions and as we enter into conversation with these questions, we should avoid offering cheap and simple responses. Society is asking questions today that were not necessarily asked in Jesus’ day, so we can’t simply impose the questions of Jesus’ day upon the questions of today and then apply the answers to the questions of Jesus’ day to the questions people are asking today. Doing so is disingenuous and simply saying something like “The Bible says, I believe it, that settle’s it” is an abuse of both the Bible and of those who raise difficult questions.

Rather than resorting to the “banal,” Christians must use the resources of knowledge available to reflect and critically engage in dialogue with these complex questions. The resources that Halík has in mind are scripture, tradition, reason, and culture (what he calls “present-day sources of knowledge”) which kind of makes him, a Catholic Priest, a good Weslyian too. However, most importantly, is the manner in which we engage the dialogue as Christians. We enter the dialogue not just prayerfully, which every Christian would agree with, but we also enter the dialogue “as competent partners respecting the rules of dialogue…”

For sometime I have imagined this dialogue as a large table conversation taking place. Fifty years ago in America it was a given that almost everyone at the table had the same basic worldview that the God spoken of in the Bible is the only God and his word, the Bible, was the ultimate authority on all matters of life. Today, things have changed and the conversation partners at the table are not just Christians, they also include Muslims, Bhuddhists, Hindus, Atheists and Agnostics, Secularist Democrats and Republicans, a wide-variety of social-political activists, and so forth. Some of these partners would even be happy if we Christians would just get up and go off to our own table (and some Christians would be happy to do so as well) but that isn’t an option if we are to participate in the mission of God.

So how do we enter into this dialogue taking place at the cultural round-table? We need to learn good table manners, which includes respecting the rules of dialogue. This means entering the dialogue with a posture of humility that listens to understand before speaking and it certainly excludes any sort of posture that demands others listen to us. Shouting at and ridiculing others we deem to be wrong won’t help at all. Furthermore, when we come as humble yet “competent” conversation partners willing dialogue about complex questions, we are able to have a say in shaping “moral and spiritual” climate of culture. That opens space for God to work through his Spirit, slowly cultivating a new culture as others make decisions about the direction of life. That is the keys to the kingdom!

Grace and Peace,

K. Rex Butts