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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Religion without Borders

How much better would the world be if religious people who do really good things to help people would just leave behind those outmoded doctrinal particulars that do nothing but divide people?  Well, actually . . . .

Monday, April 25, 2011

Jeff Johnson: Pastors' Imperfections and Connecting with God

This video contains a short message by Jeff Johnson, the author of Got Style?: Personality-Based Evangelism.  I'm privileged that Jeff is the member of the pastoral staff of my church's American Baptist region who is focused on supplying wisdom and resources to congregations and connecting them to each other for joint ministry.  At a training event for people who help churches without a pastor to get linked to one, Jeff gave this brief talk about the imperfections and foibles of every pastor that God calls and about how important it is for us to separate from our busyness to connect with God.  Enjoy.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"Family" ≠ "Christian"

So here's something that peeves me.

I think it was when I was a kid in the 80's that the word "family" got to be more and more popular in Christian circles.  Most likely some of the impetus came from the radio program (later ministry/political action juggernaut) Focus on the Family, which was accurately named, because the program consisted of child psychologist Dr. James Dobson Focusing on the Family.  But then the word "family" started showing up more and more places.  You started hearing churches refer to themselves as "a family church" (meaning what exactly?).  At some point (I don't know when) a retail chain called Family Christian Stores emerged.  And eventually it became routine for "family" to be used as sort of a fuzzy synonym for "Christian" (specifically "Evangelical") in Christian branding in the hopes (I guess) that it would feel socially nice and improve the Evangelical image.  So you had "family [i.e., conservative Christian] values," "family [i.e., Christian] radio," the American Family (i.e., politically super-conservative Christian) Association, and so on.  (Feel free to use the comments section to list examples that I missed.)

I hate it when the term "family" is used as a synonym for "Christian."  Hate it, hate it, hate it.

One reason that I hate it is that the word "Christian" puts Christ front and center.  Nothing else should be in his place.

But another reason is that family isn't good.

Well, I should clarify that.  Family is an essential feature of the human race, which God created in his image and called good.  So family, as God created it, is good.  And substitutions or innovations in family, as God created it, which the human race has toyed with since Lamech took two wives, aren't good and in fact are ultimately devastating.

But family, just like the rest of human nature, was perverted by our fall into sin.  So family is just as good as human beings are.  It's also just as sick, depraved, and vicious as human beings are.  And I'm not just talking about extreme cases of child abuse or domestic violence.  I'm talking about ordinary families' ordinary interactions, because this is exactly what the Bible describes.

I was reminded of this again because a number of us in my church are going through Beth Moore's study The Patriarchs together, which examines Genesis 12-50, in which the main characters are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, and in which much (probably most) of the drama concerns their interactions with their wives, siblings, relatives, and slaves.  It had been quite a while since I had gone through Genesis, and it was jarring once again how grossly sick and messed up this family (as Christians, our family) was.  And yet, much of the time the stuff they do is not all that far-fetched; you've probably seen some of it in your own family and in families that you know well.

So when we use the word "family," let's be clear about exactly what family is.  Family is not by itself virtuous.  Family is under a curse because of sin and desperately needs to be redeemed.  And let's not delude ourselves into thinking that our churches will be stronger if we can just attract families into them.  The families that we attract are the very ones that need the transformative grace of God in order to be pleasing to him, and if they resist that grace then they have the potential to bring an entire church down.  And let's finally remember that the family that Jesus really cared about consists of those who "hear the word of God and do it" (Luke 8:21), a family united by his blood alone with God as its Father.

The Church mustn't view family in any other sense than the way the Bible views it.  Our failure to do so provides a safe haven for idolatry—the worship of our families, our kids, our marriages, our elders—and all manner of wickedness that idolatry gives birth to.

So please, I'm begging you, use "family" when you mean "family" as the Bible describes it.  Use "Christian" when you mean "Christian."  And don't mix them up.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Pastor-Scholar" Postscript: Advice to My Former Self

In an unexpected and timely twist, I recently received an e-mail from my seminary asking alumni to submit advice for this year's graduates that will be bound in a booklet that each will receive.  Below is my submission.  I'm grateful for the moving experience of putting it into words, even if it (at least the good parts) doesn't make the cut for the booklet.  I'm including it here partly as a sort of sequel to my earlier post about my seminary but mostly because you might be in a situation where this advice would be encouraging to you.

I haven't met you, but I love you.  Since I can't see you, I can't give you a hug, and since I don't know you, I can't advise anything but what I would advise myself when I graduated with an M.Div. eight years ago.

It is tempting to believe that earning your degree prepared you for ministry.  It didn't.  It prepared your brain for ministry.  That is essential, and there is no seminary better at doing that than this one.  But pastoring isn't something that's thought or written or even spoken.  It's something that's done.  And you can't prepare for most of it except by doing it.  And much of that can't be simulated by Mentored Ministry, because you're not faced with it until you sit in that chair and bear the title of pastor.

You'll find that you never have enough time for anything.  For example, no matter what they told you preparing a sermon looks like, it's almost never going to work out that way.  You'll find yourself continually unprepared, not having written a flawless, well-researched exegetical paper and converted it into the crystalline Big Idea with perfect supporting illustrations for that week.  Fear not, beloved.  You have been preparing to preach that sermon since the first day you read that passage as a new believer and probably longer ago than that.  God wastes nothing.

Beloved, you don't know what you don't know, and it won't do you any good for me to try to tell you.  But don't be afraid.  As you do your job you'll find out, and you'll have the opportunity to learn what it is.  And yet more that you don't know that you don't know will emerge.  It never ends.  Learn not to be afraid of your ignorance.  Learn to accept it, laugh at it, embrace it, be humbled by it, revel in it.  Ignorance is not nakedness if you're robed in Christ's righteousness.

Never forget the reminder of the most brilliant mortal God ever spoke through: "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."  You can't ultimately go wrong by loving the people God has given you to love.  And beloved, you are loved.  No matter what you think you need to do or your world thinks you need to do, at the end of the day, the only thing that your Father wants from you is to accept his love for you and to love him in return, wherever you are, honored or ignored, successful or middling, content or in anguish.

And beloved, if you are that student who has been ground into powder to get to this day, if you are limping across the finish line and cannot celebrate the passage, if you don't know where you're going next, if you feel abandoned and forsaken, if you are living in a famine of hearing the voice of the Lord, hear me: he still loves you, and he's so proud of you.  He may be asleep in the back of your storm-tossed boat as it's going under, but he hasn't left it.

Look me up if you want to talk.  And be blessed of the Highest One.

Cory Hartman
M.Div. '03

Monday, April 18, 2011

Good Questions

Tim Geoffrion hasn't blogged for a few months, but I'm glad he broke his silence.  This is a real, raw, searching, genuine post about some questions that he's asking himself that really challenged me.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The New Look: Let the People Be Heard!

To the loyal readers of 1st Corynthians:

I have altered the color scheme of this blog.  The red background is still very warm but less "hot."  The text is a tad darker and larger.  My intent is to make the blog more readable but still keep its unique look to set it apart from the other 892,306,461,547,392,091,728,972,107,308 pages on the internet (when I counted earlier this afternoon).

But at the end of the day, my friends, it's all about you.  (Take that, Rick Warren!)  So let your voices be heard!  Do you prefer:
(A) The new look.
(B) The old look.  (No guarantee I can recreate it, though.)
(C) A more conventional, neutral-colored, dark-text-on-pale-background look.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Nehemiah and the Selfhood of Israel

At some point in my life of learning the Bible I was introduced to Nehemiah as the guy who rebuilt Jerusalem's wall.  That's true—Nehemiah led a third wave of returned Jewish exiles (though perhaps a small one) to Judea 13 years after Ezra did and 91 years after the first wave came back and Jeshua and Zerubbabel started rebuilding the temple.  But rebuilding Jerusalem's wall was not the most important thing he did.  As a matter of fact, the wall is completed toward the end of the sixth chapter of Nehemiah's 13-chapter book.  His project was much larger than the impressive construction of a fortification in 52 days.

Nehemiah's actual work was the reconstruction of a conceptual wall between the Jewish people and their neighbors in the same vein as the work of Jeshua and Zerubbabel and Ezra before him (the last of whom also worked with him).  Nehemiah's main challenge was the porous boundary between returned Israel and its neighbors.  The failure or absence of this boundary revealed itself in situations in which the people of God and their neighbors were so intermingled as to be indistinct from one another.  The lack of a boundary was caused by Israel's failure to grasp and maintain its uniqueness, which in turn facilitated the invasive behavior of prominent Gentiles.  Nehemiah's objective was to reestablish Israel's national selfhood.  Doing so required Israel to know and be committed to who it was, which in turn required them to know and commit to who they were not.

Nehemiah's first step in his campaign was to build Jerusalem's still-ruined wall.  It is instructive to note why Nehemiah felt that the ruin of the wall was such a bad thing.  The report he received about the returned Jews was that "[t]he remnant that remains from the exile there in the province are experiencing considerable adversity and reproach.  The wall of Jerusalem lies breached, and its gates have been burned down!" (1:3).  When asked by the Persian king what is wrong, Nehemiah replies, "Why would I not appear dejected when the city with the graves of my ancestors lies desolate and its gates destroyed by fire?" (2:3).  And after he surveys the condition of the wall, he urges the exiles, "You see the problem that we have: Jerusalem is desolate and its gates are burned.  Come on!  Let's rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that this reproach will not continue" (2:17).

The problem of the broken wall wasn't physical safety, because hardly anyone was living there anyway and because Nehemiah had no intention of setting up an independent Jewish state with defenses against the Persian military (contra his enemies' slander in 6:6-9).  The problem of the broken wall was reproach, shame, and embarrassment before the nations, exemplified by the desecration of the graves of the Jews' ancestors.  It is worth remembering that shame first appears in Scripture with the sin of Adam and Eve.  Prior to their fall they were both naked but unashamed.  In their perfect state their sense of who self was to be was so powerful that it could not be threatened even when completely exposed.  But when sin entered them, they had to erect a physical barrier between themselves and others—clothes—to cover their emptiness and to make an artificial delineation between where oneself stops and the world starts.  Jerusalem's wall was that artificial delineation for the Jewish people.  Without it they were naked and ashamed and subject to total violation as a people by their neighbors.  If allowed to continue, the boundary would become so vaporous that they would cease to be a people altogether.  With the Persian army nearby, the wall of Jerusalem was unnecessary for security, but it was essential for the self-concept of the Jewish nation.

Nehemiah instinctively knew this, and that's why he concentrated his early effort on the wall.  While the people built the physical wall, they were also building the conceptual wall between themselves and non-Jews.  They were relearning who they were and who they weren't.  This immediately led to problems with certain prominent Gentiles among the Jews' neighbors who had become accustomed to having considerable sway in the Jews' affairs.  Nehemiah was leading the people to push them out of the Jewish sphere and back into their own, and so their resistance grew more and more furious.  Once again, note that the Jews' physical safety wasn't threatened until after they had been working on the wall.  Prior to the reconstruction physical safety was a nonissue because Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem enjoyed their influence in the Jewish community.  It was only after they recognized that a line was being drawn and they were on the opposite side of it that violence from them became a real danger.

Nehemiah's intention to reestablish the self of the Jewish people ties together all his activities.  He enforces the Law of Moses with respect to forbidding lending at interest to fellow Jews, and 5:8 implies that he led a campaign to buy back Jewish slaves of Gentile masters in order to prevent that forced intermingling.  Similarly, Nehemiah connected all Jews living in Judea to the genealogical record that had been composed when the first exiles arrived, and on that basis he enforced the ban on intermarriage as Ezra had.  Much of what Nehemiah did was centered in the temple as the heart of what made the Jews, Jews, once again following the pattern Ezra had set.  So a major focus for Nehemiah was requiring the traditional contributions to be brought into it for its upkeep and the maintenance of the priesthood.  Nehemiah continued to encourage Ezra's agenda to teach people the Law of Moses and how to follow it (especially the Sabbath), and he took part in a major covenant renewal ceremony that rehearsed Israel's history.  All these efforts reinforced the boundary between the Jews and the nations and reminded the Jews that they were unique.

Nehemiah has frequently been cited as a premier biblical study on leadership.  I agree wholeheartedly, but not because Nehemiah effectively gets things done (though he does).  It's because Nehemiah depicts the real-world trials and tribulations of a leader who is trying to elevate the cohesion and maturity of character of his organization in the face of forces within and without that relentlessly try to keep it stuck in the dysfunctional mess that it was when he got there.  A major lesson of Nehemiah is that true leadership always produces sabotage that makes the leader feel painfully alone.  Not only does this leadership temporarily lead its followers from false peace into openly dangerous conflict, but it also invites roundabout pushback by those who are outwardly compliant but actually undermining reform.  The most glaring example in Nehemiah is that, try as he might, he could not get Tobiah the Ammonite permanently out of the community of Israel.  The very leaders of the people were joined with him through marriage and tried to broker a truce that would compromise Nehemiah's mission.  While Nehemiah was back in the Persian capital serving the king for a spell, his whole renewal project began to degenerate, and Tobiah managed to carve out a nice room for himself in the very temple, courtesy of the high priest of all people!  When Nehemiah returned he promptly threw Tobiah's belongings out and cleansed the place and likewise reasserted his other lapsed reforms.  Since he couldn't build the wall again with the symbolic significance that that entailed, he did the next best thing, which was to hold a grand and elaborate dedication ceremony for it twelve years after it had been built.

That ceremony included a reading from the Law that Nehemiah summarized like this:
On that day the book of Moses [presumably Deuteronomy] was read aloud in the hearing of the people.  They found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite may ever enter the assembly of God, for they had not met the Israelites with food and water, but instead hired Balaam to curse them.  (Our God, however, turned the curse into blessing.)  When they heard the law, they removed from Israel all who were of mixed ancestry [13:1-3].
The identification of the Ammonites and Moabites as people to be forever excluded from the assembly is significant, because Tobiah was an Ammonite and Sanballat was a Moabite (from Horonaim), and these were Nehemiah's two main adversaries.  However, in the very passage that the Jews heard that day (Deut. 23:1-8), God affirms that Edomites and Egyptians are allowed in the assembly of Yahweh.  In his zeal for purity, Nehemiah seems to have overlooked that part and led the people to exclude all foreigners from Israel.

It is at this point that Nehemiah seems, ironically, to have overstepped his bounds.  It is one thing to exclude who you aren't because you are establishing who you are.  It's another thing to establish who you are in reaction to who you don't want to be.  That seems to be the case here.  Indeed, there is no hint in Nehemiah that the very purpose of Israel's strong identity as the "kingdom of priests and holy nation" of Yahweh is for the redemption of all the nations.  A new kingdom and nation would have to be established to become the conduit of that blessing—provided it remains as holy in its own way as Nehemiah wanted the Jews to be.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ezra Postscripts: Secondary Separation, and Serving in a Mainline Denomination

Before I complete my short series on purity in the post-exilic Judean community with a post on Nehemiah, I want to make a couple of follow-up comments to my last post on Ezra.  That post demonstrated how Ezra exemplified an Old Covenant assumption that when the holy/clean make contact with the common/unclean, the holy/clean are compromised.  In the New Testament, however, this is not always the case.  Contact itself does not defile; otherwise Jesus would have been defiled by the incarnation itself, not to mention what he did (whom he touched, whom he conversed with, etc.) in the flesh.  Nevertheless, the saints (i.e., the holy people) may still be defiled, not by mere contact with ordinary people, but by lingering wickedness within themselves that leaks out in the midst of settled alliances with ordinary people.  My two comments in this post have to do with some difficult practical applications of this principle.

My first comment has to do with what's sometimes been called "secondary separation."  Secondary separation goes like this: I'm separating myself from all impure people, especially professing Christians who aren't living the life right somehow, and I'm avoiding interaction with them as much as possible.  But you're a good one, so I'm in relationship with you.  But then I find that you aren't separating yourself from all the people that I'm separating myself from.  So I have to separate myself from you because now you're compromised, not because you're doing or saying anything wrong yet but because you're in relationship with the wrong people.  For example, I love Bob the Christian Pastor/Speaker/Author/Celebrity; I own all his books, go to his conferences, and follow his tweets.  But then I get the bad news that Bob appeared at the same conference or signed the same public statement or blurbed the same book with a Charismatic (or Anti-Charismatic) or Fundamentalist (or NIV-user) or Catholic or Liberal or Prosperity Guy or Whatever, so now I question Bob the Celebrity's integrity and might not be able to lead the small group material that he wrote anymore, even if I haven't seen any evidence that he promotes anything that I disagree with.

To use a term from the last post, I wonder what Christians' "purity maps" are, especially the purity map of a person who engages in secondary separation.  The purity map has boundaries between holy and ordinary, probably multiple gradations in fact, and there is fear of corruption if a boundary is crossed.  It occurs to me that the impulse behind secondary separation is remarkably akin to the approach to cleanness established in Moses' Law, encouraged by Ezra, and practiced by the Pharisees in Jesus' day.  Uncleanness for them was like a contagious disease, like cooties; and if you've been infected, even if you're not showing the signs of it yet, I need to get away from you so that I don't get infected too.

People with this bent to separate might have a noble motive of seeking to remain pure and holy, but they live like they're in the old dispensation, because Jesus never acted anything like this.  He wasn't afraid that people he made contact with or people that they made contact with would corrupt him, and he never taught his followers to worry about it either.  Actually, the group of people that Jesus did urge separation from were hypocritical Pharisees and Sadducees, the very people who were so concerned to remain apart from everybody else.

It seems that people with a secondary separation mindset identify themselves very closely with the people that they are in relationship with, so closely that they can't distinguish between the actions of the people that they are in relationship with and their own actions.  In other words, if my friend goes out to dinner with Mr. Dangerous, then I think I did too, so I have to retreat.  The inability to distinguish between self and the people self is connected to doesn't look very healthy to me.  In fact, it doesn't seem to me to be the evidence of great faith but the evidence of great doubt—doubt that I'm holy because of the blood of Christ, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and adoption by God the Father, and doubt that he will see my sanctification through to the end.

Nevertheless, as I take issue with secondary separation I don't want to lose sight of the genuine concern for purity in the New Testament.  Contact with the unholy can't defile us.  But a settled arrangement of linked values, goals, agenda, and journeys with the unholy can, because it brings out in us what ought to be put to death.  That leads to my second comment, which is about the challenge I have knowing exactly how to put this into practice as a pastor in a Mainline Protestant denomination, the American Baptist Churches USA (ABC).

First, some explanation is in order.  The term "Mainline" doesn't mean "mainstream."  It refers to Philadelphia's Main Line, which passes (or used to pass?) through the swankiest part of Philadelphia and was dotted with churches of old, well-established, well-endowed denominations.  Mainline Protestantism refers to those WASP-ish, generally northern, "establishment" denominations.  These denominations happened to take a decidedly liberal turn theologically in the 20th century.

My denomination, the ABC, is unusual for a few reasons.  It is the most conservative denomination of the Mainline.  It is also the most liberal of the Baptist denominations in America.  And it is one of the few denominations—perhaps the only one—that is far enough from its WASP-ish roots that it has no ethnic majority.  In short, it is outrageously diverse.  On one end are conservatives who practice such fierce separation that they have no relationship with any other churches and are American Baptist only in name.  On the other end are people who by profession and practice are Unitarian Universalist in everything but name.  And all kinds of folks are in the middle.  It's a tent that's so big that I wonder if anyone fits under it (kind of like the old Yogi Berra-ism about a restaurant that's "so crowded nobody goes there anymore").

Another thing that makes us unusual is that the ABC is more a federation than a denomination.  Congregations opt into associations, associations into regions, and regions into the denomination.  Most of the denominational apparatus itself is a set of separate, cooperating boards.  There are ties (including legal ones) that bind all the constituent parts together, but a feature of this bottom-up structure is that, basically, no one can tell anyone else what to do.

This explains the ABC's curious stance on the issue of homosexuality that has vexed every Mainline denomination.  I've had people tell me that they know of the ABC as the Baptists who are in favor of homosexuality.  That's because there is a small but energetic minority of Baptist churches that include as members, marry, and ordain homosexuals.  Some associations have actually ejected these churches from membership, but the "Welcoming and Affirming" churches have joined other ones and remain connected to the denomination.  Despite this, the denomination actually has an official public statement on homosexuality that says, "We affirm that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."  (Yep, that's the whole statement.)  So our corporate statement expresses disagreement with homosexual practice, but our structure isn't designed to facilitate enforcement of corporate statements on member churches—and more to the point there generally isn't the will to do so.

I'm not going to get into what my denomination ought to look like, in my humble opinion.  The sticky question, and the one that matters more, is what do I do?  Am I corrupted because I am in league with the ungodly since there are some in my denomination who deny central premises of Christian doctrine (including the word "doctrine" itself) and endorse sinful practices?  Or am I pure despite their presence, and in fact might I be an agent of sanctification within this fellowship?

The book of Jude has a lot to do with this dilemma.  Most of Jude's letter uses lavish images of purity and pollution to condemn false teachers and demand total avoidance of them and their wicked ways.  But at the end Jude writes, "And have mercy on those who waver; save others by snatching them out of the fire; have mercy on others, coupled with a fear of God, hating even the clothes stained by the flesh" (22-23).  Though Jude's insistence on intolerance of falsehood remains unwavering, he views propagators of falsehood and those tempted by it in different categories.  The propagators are to be rejected completely.  Those who are being unknowingly influenced by it, on the other hand, are to be treated with mercy that reaches out to save.  It is a fearful mercy that recognizes the potential that oneself might be led astray if not careful, but it is mercy nonetheless.

In my relatively short time as an American Baptist, I have encountered a very small number of people who actively and openly propagate ungodliness, deny the gospel, and exalt unregenerate human opinion over the Word of God.  But most people don't do that, even people that could fairly be called Liberals.  I have to say, this surprised me.  My upbringing and even more so my college and seminary educations conditioned me to believe that every Liberal was an axe-grinding, 19th-century German higher critic who woke up in the morning chomping at the bit to identify more parts of the Bible that didn't really happen.  But that's simply not so.  Liberals can no more be fairly reduced to a caricature than Evangelicals can.  Most of the Liberal-tilting American Baptists that I've met, including clergy, are genuine folks who read the Bible respectfully, desire to follow Jesus, and show evidence of salvation.  Some of these people are also dangerously open to the false teachers.  But that doesn't prevent me from having a relationship with them.  As a matter of fact, my relationship with them (in addition to others' relationships with them) is more likely to counteract that falsehood than anything else.  I often find that if I show that I want to listen to them, they become very interested in listening to me.  I also find that some of what they have to say, far from being false, actually drives me to uncomfortable passages of Scripture that I might avoid if I only let myself talk to people who already agree with me.

Now having said that, I do stand in a dangerous place.  My denomination is not pure like it should be and in fact is much more afraid of the journey to purity than it is of the effects of pollution.  I don't have much hope that it's going to improve in purity in the short term.  I could become corrupted.  On the other hand, there are many within it "who have not stained their clothes" (Rev. 3:4) who are leavening the whole thing as well as living as salt and light in the world, and there are many who are wavering who yet might be snatched from the fire.  And God has been clear with me that I'm not to go.  So I think I'll stick around.