Is my religion my hobby?

hobbyI had a coffee today with Graham J. an old friend of mine, who is a believer in Zen Buddhism. He said he recently decided to take his Zen beliefs much more seriously. I asked him if his Zen beliefs were a hobby or a way of life? (Graham knows me quite well  and likes or at least tolerates my habit of asking provocative questions in order to learn more deeply about any subject.)  My hobby is Duplicate Bridge; I take it seriously and my partner and I analyse our performance and try to learn how to play better so we can win more often. But I don’t see Bridge as being very important compared to many other aspects of my life. It isn’t my ‘way of life.’

We discussed this question for awhile. Graham suggested that his desire was to live all aspects of his ordinary life more mindfully. His Zen Master taught him living mindfully required three steps: Clear your mind; Understand the situation; Act.  His way of making Zen his way of life was to practice these three steps diligently, starting with meditating each morning on his day and preparing to live mindfully.

What about me?

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. In the Catholic Church Lent is a special time to ‘repent’ and think about your life as a Christian. I don’t think that it was accidental that Graham and I had this conversation on the second day of Lent; God arranged it and sent his grace into our conversation to shape it for His purposes. When I asked Graham whether his belief was only his hobby I was actually asking myself that same provocative question. I’d like to say that I was able to quickly say that I treat my Christian belief as a way of life not a hobby but I have an uncomfortable feeling that there’s too much ‘hobby’ in my practice and not enough ‘way of life.’  And my discomfort is grace again working in me.

I won’t do an examination of conscience here in my blog. I do suggest that you ask yourself the question ‘Is my religion my hobby?’ and listen very carefully to what God has to say to you. One good result of this exercise is that you will come to appreciate God’s mercy and forgiveness a whole lot better.

A. Why Change? — Is there an urgent need to transform our local church?

The need to change almost always starts with a threat. Someone can tell you how great the future will be after some change happens  but human beings will inevitably choose to stay in the status quo unless there is some threat or danger or bad experience.

This is especially true when it comes to changes relating to our spiritual life and church. “Many of us get caught in surface living or in the pressures of the practical. We want to escape the costly strangeness of this voyage within.”  [Michael Paul Gallagher in Faith Maps] The promises of Jesus can easily be overlooked by Christians, who feel the daily pressure of living in a complex modern society. We are losing our sense of being a unique people with a vital calling: to announce the Good News that the world is filled with God’s grace. It seems unlikely and even absurd that we are God’s sons and daughters who are meant to transform the world. Most of us don’t even notice that we are losing something crucial to living;  the surrounding secular culture seems quite normal to us and church seems like something that must be fit into our everyday life.

I want to raise the possibility that Christians and local churches face a ‘burning platform.’  The burning platform metaphor originated when the oil drilling platform Piper Alpha in the North Sea caught fire. A worker was trapped by the fire on the edge of the platform. Rather than certain death in the fire, he chose probable death by jumping 100 feet into the freezing sea. He had to risk change because he was faced with a status quo that was completely untenable. We like the worker on the burning oil rig can’t stay where we are because the threat to our life as Christians is too great.

I will quote several authors, from among many, who sense that there is something profoundly wrong with church in general.

  • “[We live in] a culture in which central features of the Christian story are unknown and churches are alien institutions whose rhythms do not normally impinge on most members of society.” Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom
  • “Everywhere in the Western world the Church has suffered a massive loss of ground. It is seldom at the centre of people’s lives. In today’s complexity it is just one of many potential sources of meaning, and perhaps not a very attractive one at that. For huge numbers of the younger generation what the church offers – in terms of teaching, or worship, or spiritual image – rings strange, and sometimes even hollow and dishonest. ” Michael Paul Gallagher in Faith Maps
  • “. . . Traditional churches are emptying, their congregations are graying, the eyes of their fewer and fewer young people are glazing over, and turning elsewhere. ” Scott Cowdell, God’s Next Big Thing
  • “If we are the church, then the church is a fellowship of those who seek journey and lose their way, of the helpless, the anguished and the suffering, of sinners and pilgrims. If we are the church, then the church is a sinful and pilgrim church, and there can be no question of idealizing it.”  Gerald A Arbuckle, Refounding the Church

The first task of Christians in every local church is to read the signs of our times, both in the world and in their own church. Are these authors reflecting the true state of the church? What do you discern? Do you sense an urgency to act and transform yourself and your local church?

Discussing the need  to change with other people in your local church, and learning together with the Pastor how to proceed is a critical task which every Christian needs to prayerfully consider and then undertake.

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The real church?

I visited St Winifred’s Well in northern Wales on my holiday and encountered an “old fashioned” religion that I hadn’t experienced since I was a boy. This holy place is called “The Lourdes of The UK” and has been visited by kings and ordinary people for many centuries. While I was there, an old couple was collecting a bottle of holy water from a brass spout. They got me thinking. I have an ideal of what religion and church ought to be — different now than when I was a boy — but is my view too limited? I began to think of other churches I have experienced.

On the same trip, I visited the Coventry Cathedral — the bombed out shell destroyed in a German air raid in WWII, built next too a very modern new cathedral. There were a few visitors in the ruins, and all were probably having a religious experience of some kind. The theme of this cathedral is forgiveness — even while the theme of the new church is portrayed by the massive bronze figure of the archangel Michael spearing the Devil. I thought the juxtaposition of these two themes says a lot about < !->Christianity Continue reading “The real church?”

Personal AND Church Transformation

I often get asked, “Don’t you have to change yourself before you think about changing anyone else — or the church?” Yes, of course. But, on the other hand, we’ll never be good enough or ready — we have to rely on God to actually do the work of change in us and in others and in the church. So how do you know you are  ready enough, transformed enough to be bold enough to take on the role of Change Agent? I think it comes from seeing that both individuals and church communities need to be ‘loved into’ changing by God.

“First we receive love and then we can respond with love. Here we glimpse a glory and a beauty that not only calls us, but empowers us to a different way of life, to daily discipleship.”  This quote is spoken by the noted theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in an imaginary monologue created by Michael Paul Gallagher in his book Faith Maps.  It summarizes the relationship between personal and church transformation that I am suggesting. Let me break it down for you.

  • “First we receive love” Everything starts with God’s initiative. Even the fact that you are reading this  is evidence that God has triggered some desire in you out of love. Probably the most quoted Bible verse in America, displayed at many public places and events, is “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” [John 3:16] That, in a nutshell is what salvation means. God acted so that human beings can have eternal life. Salvation precedes everything and any human initiative.
  • “then we can respond with love” Deep movements in ourselves continually pull us toward God. The Spirit prays for us when we cannot. God inspires and draws us forward. So, our first step in transformation is responding when we perceive these deep movements. Our response can be to change ourselves or help some neighbor or begin to transform our local church. The Spirit’s power is enabling all these responses.
  • “we glimpse a glory and a beauty” When we respond, something happens. We may only feel some ‘shift’ deep within ourselves, or we may actually do something that is good, externally. But our awareness depends on our noticing that something has happened, and noticing happens in prayer. This may during be a special time reserved for prayer or as a gift ‘on the fly’ when the Spirit has prayed that we notice what has happened. These moments in my life are what I call ‘peak experiences.’ I am lifted out of my usual perspective and allowed to see something wonderful. That gift is given to be shared, to build up the sense of the real presence of Jesus among Christians and, indeed, everyone who has ‘ears to hear.’
  • “that not only calls us but empowers us to a different way of life” When we see the reality of what the Spirit is doing in and through us, we experience the desire to do this again and again. This is our ‘call,’ to follow a different way of life, and take seriously our own unique role in Jesus’ mission, even before we know what that is. We begin to discover a different kind of inspiration and power in our life.
  • “to daily discipleship” Finally, we want to follow Jesus, in the world but not solely of the world. We don’t know what this is, of course, and fall short often. Nonetheless, we strive to follow him. This striving, over time, perhaps many years, becomes a ‘24×7’ way of life. Actually, striving is the wrong word, because it is too connected with the common western culture. A better word is ‘floating’ in God’s Spirit. We learn to trust and float, as the Spirit carries us to the “good works , which God prepared in advance for us to do.” [Ephesians 2:10b] And we learn to trust that we will be up to doing these tasks, because it is God’s power in us, not our own self-development that is doing them. That is why salvation is the essential starting point for Christian transformation.

These wonderful things happen to us both when we are alone and when we are in a community of Christians. In fact, for many people, the ordinary experiences in the church community are how they encounter salvation and the lure of discipleship. This being so, we now need to talk about how personal and church transformation are linked.

How personal transformation is linked to church

Is the church necessary? If a personal relationship with Jesus is the essence of salvation, why get involved with church and ‘organized religion’ at all? Primitive man believed that life depended on being part of a tribe; you couldn’t survive alone. After Pentecost, believers didn’t “join” a church or an organized religion, but they became part of a community of Christians. But now, the common culture stresses “individualism” and therefore joining a church seems to mean giving up something, some essential freedom. What I’m saying is that we are all profoundly shaped by the point of view of the common culture, including Christians, and can no longer see the church’s utter necessity as Jesus sees it. Otherwise why would so many Christians see church as optional, or at best something they “need” occasionally, on Sundays or at Easter and Christmas? I want to help you get outside the common culture and see your local church through Jesus’ eyes. Then you will be able to see how your own transformation is inextricably linked to your local church’s.

Why did the Spirit send Peter out to immediately explain to the crowds what had happened to Jesus? What was Jesus saying about “church” in that first speech and the other speeches of the Apostles in the early days of “church? Not simply, look what you’ve done, but also see who I am, and what you ought to do in the light of the ‘last days.’ [Acts of the Apostles 2:14-41]

I believe that the three points made by Peter in his first sermon can lead 21st century Christians to a fresh understanding of how Jesus sees church. Let me expand each point of Peter’s sermon, and relate them to personal transformation and church.

  • What you have done. In a way, Jesus was establishing a ‘burning platform’ at the outset. To the crowds right after the Crucifixion, Peter said, “You are responsible for this. The Romans may have carried out the sentence but all of you are responsible.” Jesus is saying to us, today, “The human race is responsible for the wounds of the world and, because of that, I died. The Romans crucified me in the 1st century but you are responsible, even today, for the wounds that infect mankind.” I’m not preaching old-time fire and brimstone religion; I’m simply pointing out that in Jesus’ mind, what the human race continues to do is an extremely serious matter, which none of us can ignore, especially Christians who ostensibly know what’s going on in the last days.
  • Who I am. The crowd responded when they understood who Jesus is. Peter (in Luke’s telling of the story) led them carefully from what they knew, from Scripture, to who Jesus is. Their recognition was instant; over 3,000 people who heard Peter speak accepted who Jesus was on the spot. We can be certain that recognizing who Jesus is a key part of church. Not that there aren’t debates. Many of these arise from how our culture conditions even Christian thinking. But despite the debates Christians encounter who Jesus is and the fundamental necessity of a relationship with him.
  • What you ought to do. Here Luke uses the language of the early church to describe something that happened probably at least fifty years earlier. The story had been told over and over, but Luke’s purpose was to tell people who weren’t able to directly hear the story in his time and for all time, what they ought to do. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” [Acts 2:38] “Repent and be baptized” and “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” were both phrases that developed as Christians considered what had happened in the first days after Pentecost. What these words do not mean is “Go, develop a private relationship with Jesus.” I think that they mean, “Realize something new has arrived in your life and come join the followers of Jesus.” The primary message is that the gift of the Spirit flows, at least in Christians, from accepting, perhaps tentatively at first, and finally fully at the level of conviction, that we are part of the Body of Christ. Church is essential to all Christians, not an add-on or crutch, as the modern culture sees it, for those who aren’t strong enough to stand on their own two feet. Church means being connected to the vine, being part of Jesus’ body, being part of God’s family. So how could any Christian possibly see the church as optional? Today, this happens because we are ‘swimming in a culture’ that has long since decided that life is for ‘rugged individualists’ and that being part of church detracts from our freedom. We accept that view because the church no longer presents a contrary view in any way that makes sense to us. That is another strong reason why local churches must be transformed.

My claim is that being part of a local church is not optional; it is essential to life “in the Spirit” for Christians. Is the Holy Spirit unable to operate outside local churches? Of course not. “The wind blows where it will.”  But, without a local church, how can any Christian firmly believe that they are part of the body of Christ? Yet, many Christians basically try to live outside any church community today. I think such Christians distance themselves from the reality of church because it is too painful for them to belong. Why? Perhaps because they agree with the common culture that there is something wrong with ‘organized religion.’ Or perhaps because they cannot actually see the gifts of the Holy Spirit in their local church. (Of course, the church could be perfectly all right and all these ‘Christians’ are simple wrong-headed or misled.)

Local churches ought to begin considering how much they need to be transformed by examining themselves honestly, not by assuming all is well. Jesus gave us a good way to assess ourselves. “By their fruits you shall know them.” A spirit-filled church produces good fruit; one that isn’t spirit-filled produces no fruit or even bad fruit. Spirit-filled churches have spirit-filled people. So, an excellent first step is to ‘soul search’ about whether your church is spirit-filled or not.

Let’s assume that you sense some gap and want to further consider transformation. This then raises a ‘chicken and egg’ question. To transform a local church must you initially transform its members to being spirit-filled, or do you transform a church so that it can help its members become spirit-filled? My answer is a “both-and” answer. However spirit-filled or wounded a local church may be, the members of that local church should begin the transformation process. By helping the church become a better follower and lover of Jesus, it will thereby be better at helping its members become more spirit-filled. And Spirit-filled people can help the church transform itself even more. This is a ‘virtuous circle,’ that starts in the hearts of its members.

Is church necessary at all?

This question is generally asked and answered in two ways:

  • “Is ‘going to church’ a necessary part of my life?” Individual Christians answer this question in a variety of ways and, increasingly, as evidenced by falling church attendance, say no.
  • “Is church a necessary component of Christianity?” Perhaps individual ‘spirituality’ and a relationship with God is sufficient. Regardless of how individuals might ‘vote with their feet,’ thoughtful people in various Christian churches are wondering about what church has become over time and whether  ‘church’ as we traditionally understand it is needed? Does church have to radically change?

I would like to explore the  question of whether church is necessary by introducing a different word to describe ‘church’ — Christian ‘community.’ My belief is that, to the extent that any local church is a genuine Christian community, and it is not always easy to discern this, that church is a necessary part of its members’ life. They cannot live a truly Christian life without it. Why do I believe this?

Bernard Cooke in Christian Community: Response to Reality, justifies the necessity for Christian community with these statements: “Men will be human to the degree they are free; to be free they must know and love; to know and love they must be taught and loved — and this is what Christ does in and through his body which is the Church. . . Experience shows that love among men can come into being and develop only if people have the opportunity to deal with one another, share experiences together, develop common concerns — in short to live together in some form of community. God’s action in both Old Testament Israel and Christianity has been one of forming such a community, so that true freedom might be achieved.”

Accepting Cooke’s reasoning, we can begin to see some attributes of a genuine Christian community. Using these attributes, we can begin to prayerfully discern whether and to what extent our local church is a genuine Christian community. My assertion is that, just because a local church is part of some larger religious denomination, that does not guarantee that it is a genuine Christian community. Belonging to a religious denomination may be a prerequisite for forming a Christian community (and not every denomination would say that this is so) but it is the responsbility of the local church members — clergy and lay together — to create, in collaboration with the Holy Spirit, a genuine Christian community.

What are the attributes of a genuine Christian community?

  1. A genuine Christian community loves all men and women (Inclusive)
  2. A genuine Christian community teaches all men and women how to know and love, so that they can be truly free. (Nurturing)
  3. A genuine Christian community designs ways for its members to live together and find opportunities to engage, share experiences and develop common concerns. (Creative)

These attributes are a starting point for a local church to assess whether and to what extent it is a genuine Christian community. Whether Bernard Cooke’s logic, or my analysis of his reasoning is the right context for the discussion is not the issue. The real issue is whether we (members of a local church) reflect about and assess the health of our church community. And then, are we willing to take responsibility for transforming our local church into a genuine Christian community?

 

 

Transformation needs a realistic assessment

How much does our local church need to change? Are we already doing our ‘utmost for his highest’ according to Oswald Chambers’ famous yardstick? How do we measure ourselves, and against what standards?

I offer the following standard as a starting point for discussing and answering the question how much do we actually need to change? Christians should break Jesus’ mission into three fundamental areas of focus of a church’s activities – Welcoming, Belonging and Serving. These three areas can be directly tied to Jesus’ own life and teaching so we can be confident that they are truly transformational activities. They can also be measured, which allows us to objectively assess how much we actually need to change.

  • Welcoming: Our attitude toward strangers and what we do to invite them to experience Jesus’ kingdom.
  • Belonging: What we do to grow the maturity of Christians, especially in regard to strengthening them in Jesus’ alternative cultural reality.
  • Serving: What we do to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc, following Jesus’ first Principle of the Preferential Option for the Poor.

Each church most likely will have on-going activities in each of these three areas. The question is not only how well we are doing these, but also what are we not doing? That is why I included “strangers” under Welcoming, Jesus’ “alternative cultural reality” under Belonging, and “preferential Option for the Poor” under Serving. We need to measure ourselves using the mind of Jesus and our measurement ‘yardstick’ must have some ‘bite’ to it. Looking at other options for these three areas, and applying Jesus’ Principles to decide whether they ought to be done is a good way to answer the question how much do we actually need to change.

 

Change starts with a mindset

There are two opposed mindsets and viewpoints about the world in general:

  1. Disengaged Viewpoint. The world? I don’t pay any attention to it. It is, always has been and always will be filled with problems.  There aren’t any reliable facts about problems and there certainly aren’t any global solutions. The best you can do is make your own little part of the world as secure and comfortable as you can, for yourself and your family, and keep your head down.
  2. Engaged Viewpoint. It’s important to know about the world. After all, I’m part of it. The world has enormous problems and all of us have an obligation to do something about them, beyond just making ourselves and our families secure and comfortable. Even if I can only do something small, it may help make things better on a larger scale.

Christians with the Disengaged Viewpoint quote certain of Jesus’ sayings to strengthen their position. Their position is commonly called a “judging” view, where the world will be judged and destroyed in a final judgment.

  • “You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.” [John 15:19]
  • “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.” [Matthew 13:41]

Christians with the Engaged Viewpoint quote other verses to strengthen their position. Their position is commonly called the “Incarnational” view, which says that Jesus became man to transform the world, which is the will of the Father.

  • “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” [John 3:16-17]
  • “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” [John17:18]

I am an advocate of the Incarnational view.  My purpose is not to debate the Bible or theology but to enable Christians to transform themselves and their local church, to increase their ‘saltiness’ so that they can more effectively participate in Jesus’ work of transforming the world.「あこや本真珠≪グッドクオリティ花珠真珠≫パールネックレス ホワイトピンク系 7.5-8.0 AAA ラウンド」≪花珠鑑別書付≫(アコヤ本真珠・花珠ネックレス)[真珠 パール ネックレス][CO][n
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