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Saturday, March 26, 2011

On ritual

            Here’s a story from when I was in college.  About 20 miles away from the school, in the nearest major city, was a church which, in that area, held a place in the city somewhat similar to the position Ebenezer Baptist holds in Atlanta—the most notable church in the African-American community, and the one whose leader the media run to for a quote when there is a topic concerning Christian belief, civil rights, and/or an issue specifically concerning the African-American community.  One person from that church was on the faculty of the school I went to.  I didn’t know her, but I did know a couple of other persons who went to that church, so one Sunday I decided to go there as a broadening experience, as I grew up in a town in which, for many years, no one of any minority lived, and later one black and one Hispanic family, which doesn’t effect a culture too much, given that the reason for a lack of minority residents wasn’t insidious, it’s just that none had settled in my town until certain legislation forced the largest companies in town to go out of their way to hire and move in to town a family to prove to the government they weren’t discriminatory.
            Anyway, I walk in sit down, and in a few minutes the service starts.  Just before the service began, six women dressed in nurse’s uniforms came to stand equidistant apart from each other in front of the stage.  I was thinking, “Maybe this is ‘Honor the Nursing Profession’ Sunday or something.”  The service starts, and the choir sings for, I am guessing, about 45 minutes.  At that point, the pastor gets up, says a few things, and then says that “sister (name here) is going to give a testimony.”  A young woman gets up, tells about a situation in her life, how blessed things happened, and that she was joyful for it.  At this point, she starts building up her voice, getting more and more excited, eventually bending over, swaying back and forth a little, and finally falling on the floor somewhat like convulsing.  At this point, the six women in nurse’s uniforms pick her up off the floor, and carry her out of the auditorium.  If any of them returned, they must have been behind me.
            As much as this may have seemed bizarre to me, it is obvious from the nurses being up front standing like an honor guard that this was totally expected.  What just occurred to me is that, in its own place, this was just as much ritual as a Catholic mass delivered in all Latin.  It is also more obvious to me because neither are “my” favorite rituals.
            It is harder to recognize that something is ritual, and not specifically directed by God for all places and times when you like it.  I came to faith in Jesus in 1968, but the year I grew as a believer the most was my freshman year in college, 1971-1972.  That year, I was also introduced to the music of Larry Norman.  The way he did things was anti-traditional, and some of what he said was blatantly insensitive to some believers older and, in some ways, wiser than he.  Nonetheless, what he said and how he did music to honor Jesus, for me, fit the situation I was in, the secular university in which faith in Jesus was an unacceptable thing as far as the image of outer society’s status quo was concerned.  From the experience of those years, I have always placed “Does it align with Scripture?” ahead of “What does anyone else think?” 
            In the “real world,” as off a campus was occasionally referred to when on campus, the attitude within our culture that Christianity is/was (depending on the person) the status quo belief of our culture makes standing for Jesus in spirit and truth more challenging for the ironic reason of it not being directly challenged. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Doing research on prosperity

            Currently, the greatest “iron sharpens iron” aspect in my life at this time are conversations with a man in my church named Don.  The sharpening aspect comes largely out of the differences in our life experiences up to this point of crossing each others’ paths.  He is former military, coming to faith in Jesus during that period, and having been to bible school and being involved in institutional churches that, I perceive, would self-classify themselves as fundamentalist.  I came to faith in Jesus while in high school, with being involved in churches which would consider themselves Calvinist (first ten years), and later undenominational charismatic/Pentecostal (next 35), and going through the secular liberal arts university experience, including being heavily involved in being part of Christian groups as part of it. 
            As such, two Sundays ago, our conversation slipped over to that flavor within the greater body of Christ in the western world that would wear the label “prosperity message.”  In the discussion, I learned from him that this train of thought is not the sole preserve of the Pentecostal/charismatic wing, and I indicated, and I believe that it was to his surprise, that such thought had some form of foothold among the rank-and-file believers of all the p/c churches I had been connected with, without regard to how intellectualist or anti-intellectualist was the leadership.
            As this body meets late on Sunday afternoon, last Sunday morning I started to do a little research on this subject, in that, from where I stand at this time, the main problem with this group of teachings is the normal one for any unbalanced teaching, that verses are taken out of the literary context of the pericope (definition: the sentences before and after that contain a connected thought), and also, as this is one of the bases of many simple church critiques of modern practices, out of cultural context.  This was quite obvious a few years ago (I no longer have a clue exactly when), when Gordon Fee, one of the most respected theologians who is connected to a Pentecostal group, publicly commented about how many media (and other) preacher/teachers were using 3 John 2 and it seemed almost immediately I didn’t hear such personalities refer to this verse.  For reference, the verse says, “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.”  What was pointed out is that John, in 2 John, written close to the same time, writes his greeting in code, “To the elect lady and her children,” due to the possible danger of the messenger being caught with the letter.  In such a dangerous situation, where believers might reasonable fear for their physical lives, using 3 John 2 to be a reference for believing for wealth and luxury items in our current culture is just silly in comparison to the context of the time of its writing.
            Anyway, as much as prosperity message is all over Christian tv/radio in comparison to persons teaching the opposite side of this issue, the internet is the opposite, at least in the sense that only persons who see it as incorrect link their writings to that phrase.  I started working on a list of scriptures for some type of orderly comparison, but this turned out to be a project significantly greater than I would have guessed.  This whole writing sounds like a lead-in to an examination of this subject, but I’m not close to done.   

Friday, March 18, 2011

Paul Copen explains Dt. 25:11-12

Yesterday, on Frank Viola’s Reimagining Church blog (www.frankviola.wordpress.com), he interviews Paul Copen, who wrote the book Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God.  Particularly, part way through this blog/interview, which is significantly longer than the normal blog, Copen gives an understandable explanation of one of the most difficult passages of scripture to understand, Deuteronomy 25:11-12.  Most commentaries one can find on the internet on this are by unbelievers wishing to mock faith in the God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures.  Further, it is amazing how many commentaries on the Old Testament by believing scholars skip explaining this piece of the Law.  I have heard this explanation once before, but without explaining the specific Hebrew words, the explanation doesn’t make sense.
            At this point in my life, Frank’s blog is the only one I subscribe to.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Another flyer idea

This is another idea for a flyer to pass out to neighbors that I wouldn't normally run into.  Unlike previous ideas, I've actually made some copies to really use.  Is it effective?   I can't say, yet.  Still, I post this here as an idea that, if it is useful to someone else, great.
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My name is --------.  I live at --------.  My phone number is --------.
I am not selling anything.
I became a believer in the message of Jesus in 1968, when I was 15.  About three and a half years ago, I found myself owning a business in which over 90% of the sales, and the connected work, happened on Saturday and Sunday.  I experientially discovered something obvious, which was the institutional, traditional church I was going to, along with most similar organizations were quite inflexible with regard to the life I lived.  I agree with evangelical Christian theology and, in turn, morality, but my job didn’t let me fit into the structure.  I was aware that the structure wasn’t something commanded by God, so I looked for a church that met some other time.  I actually found one on the far other end of the metro area, but didn’t feel comfortable driving that far (I probably would have today).
I have come to realize that, to early Christians, who were an underground group in their society, church was roughly synonymous with “group”.  The Bible teaches that it is a group of people who meet together to worship Jesus (Ac. 2:41-47) and build up each other (1 Thessalonians 5:11).  Buildings, regular collection of money, people paid to lead a group, and rituals were not part of church, a gathering of believers.  A part of “build up each other” is that the group is small enough that everyone knows each other.

If you are a believer in Jesus that hasn’t been involved in an organization this society calls a church because you don’t fit in somehow (and there’s myriad ways to not fit in), give me a call.  If you aren’t a believer in Jesus, but find Him interesting, but the organizations purporting to represent Him to be not so interesting, give me a call also.

If you want to learn more about worshipping Jesus without culturally imposed structure and ritual, but don’t want to talk to me or some other person, here are some places on the web I’d recommend to get information:

www.simplechurchjournal.com –a European point of view
thegodjourney.com –a podcast (no www.)
shapevine.com (no www.)
www.searchingtogether.org –deals with theological details
thejesusvirus.org (no www.)
www.housechurchresource.org
www.hrscn.org –connected to believers involved in simple worship in the Hampton Roads area
tevyebird.blogspot.com (no www.) –my blog—in the December 2010 archieves are the scripts to 100 two minute commentaries (written for radio) that cover various subjects on right practice in true gatherings of believers

Note:  I am in no way saying that many good hearted believers in traditional churches are wrong, but that there is an organizational structure that is devoid of scriptural merit.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A flyer

One of the things I have been thinking about is how to find persons living around me who are either a) unbelievers who have honest questions about following Jesus, or b) believers who sense a dissatisfaction with the state they are living in.  I live in the suburbs where almost everyone ducks out of their house to work, shop, go to school, but no one associates with each other in the neighborhood until circumstances force them to.  To this idea, below is a rough draft of a flyer.  Actually, I'm looking to cook up one that is about one 8.5x11 page long, whereas this is 3 to a page.  I post this for anyone who might find the idea within this to be useful.
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Normal persons doing normal things and living to honor Jesus is the most socially subversive thing this world has ever seen.  In our society, faith in Jesus has been made status quo, both by social groups wishing to negate or neutralize His power and by believers in Him who have various reasons for worshipping Him in a status quo fashion, not the least of which is some believers, intentionally or not, making money, fame, or status off of others.  Jesus did not teach his disciples to teach others to build buildings, form corporations, or create professional holy man jobs.
I would like to invite you to a participatory Bible study on the theme of “God’s Eternal Purpose.”  Why Jesus did what He did had a purpose bigger than either guiding persons to do good things or to evangelize the world; there was a time in pre-history when both those things were unnecessary, and there will in the future be one also.  I said participatory in that no one person just talks and talks; everyone can contribute or ask questions.  The Bible shows that Jesus allowed persons to ask questions, even tricky, pointed questions meant to embarrass or negate Him. 
(Name, address, phone number)

group, church, and cultural context

            On the northern edge of the downtown business district of Norfolk, VA, there is a certain office building.  Unlike most of the downtown buildings, it has a small strip of lawn in front of the building, and on that piece of lawn is a sign stating the tenants of it.  One of them is “The Group for Women.”  The name tells one little about the organization.  I have intentionally not done any research about it—the reason why will be obvious in a moment.  Knowing the day and age I live in, I could reasonably guess that it might be a feminist organization, or an organization that concentrates on a physical or psychological problem that is largely a concern of the female gender.  Therefore, I cannot even guess whether it is for profit or not for profit.  In spite of the name, “The” does not imply that it is the largest or most dominant women’s group in the area, or I probably would know something about it.
            The problem is with the word “group.”  Many large Japanese corporations end their name with the word “Group”, but that isn’t common here.  In our culture, a group could be an informal association of people, or an organization of just about any type one can imagine.  It has a specialized meaning in the military.  It can be a synonym for band.  About the only thing specific is that it isn’t referring to an individual.
            The importance to believers in Jesus is that, to the best that I can see, group is the modern English word most similar to the word in Biblical (Koine) Greek that is generally translated “church.”  Yes, I know that it is supposedly most close to “gathering” or “assembly”, but neither of these words are as commonly used as “group.”  The key in my saying this comes from Acts 19.  There appears the story of the idol makers guild protesting the work of Paul.  The idol makers, in spite of the statements of honor to the goddess Diana in this passage, were really motivated by their bottom line being hurt by persons who formerly were involved in the city religion leaving that to follow Jesus.  We must also take note that this town belief gained no small amount of money by travelers, especially sailors, who cared nothing about the belief, but did drop money to the temple to take part in its sexual sacrifices.  Anyway, in Acts 19, the protestors they gathered are described in most English versions of the Bible as an “assembly” or “gathering,” and I’m fully well aware that many institutional church pastors have described this more colorfully, and to our cultural accurately, as a “mob”, but that word, in the Greek, was the same word that in all other places in the New Testament is translated as “church.”  That was why city officials were so concerned, as such dissent was one of the few things that irritated their superiors in Rome, and they, as all politicians, were concerned about their own jobs. 
            This tells us that, to the original writers and hearers of the books of the New Testament, and also to unbelievers who lived in that culture, that word implied something that was not necessarily formally organized, not necessarily permanent or temporary, and not a religious term.  When almost any person in our culture hears or reads the word “church” in our culture today, they will think of something religious, organizational, permanent (as possibly incapable of adjusting quickly to anything), and established.  When we take that attitude to reading that into that word in scripture, we are now reading that passage out of (cultural) context, which can easily lead to interpreting the whole passage in a way that is not at all like it was meant to be understood.