Friday, March 21, 2008

Maundy Thursday and the Lord's Supper

Holy Thursday is a high holy day on the Christian calendar. Maundy Thursday traditionally acknowledges and celebrates the institution of the Lord's Supper by Jesus at the Last Supper, just prior to his trial and crucifixion. Therefore, it is appropriate at this time of year to reflect on the significance of the Lord's Supper in our lives today.

The following is adapted from Lesson 6 of my recently completed Hospitality course:

First and most obviously, the Lord's Supper is the LORD's supper. It is a meal that is given by Christ the Host to us as his guests. In the Lord's Supper, Christ, in an act of extraordinary hospitality, is hosting a meal in which he as the host invites us to his table to spiritually feed on him. By partaking in this meal, we are participating in God's hospitality to us. Because to partake in the Lord's Supper requires the proclamation that God is Lord of our lives and that we belong to him through his death (1C 11.26), partaking in God's meal makes us willing participants in God's redemptive work in us individually and corporately. God gathers us together, and feeds us together as the Body of Christ. The Lord's Supper is a manifestation of God's present-day hospitality to us.

Second, The Lord's Supper is thoroughly subversive. In the early church, the concept of eating and drinking the flesh and blood of some religious leader was easily misconstrued and distorted, and became cause for outside persecution. The Lord's Supper was often cited as a practice of depraved cultish immorality, and became one reason behind the Roman persecution of the church. Times have changed, but not as much as we might think. Today, the Lord's Supper directly attacks the notion of individual autonomy and adequacy that is a mainstay of our political and consumerist society. In the Lord's Supper, we are being asked to give up trying to earn our way into God's favor through our own individual efforts, including making up our own spiritual rules as if we were the Host and the Lord's Table was really our table. To partake in the Lord's Supper is to find rest in the opposite – that it is through Christ's work that we have found favor with God. Participating in God's hospitality through regular observance of the Lord's Supper is to joyfully and tearfully acknowledge that we are his ever-needy guests in need of the grace and eternal life that we are entirely unable to manufacture on our own. I would suggest there are precious few confessions that are more subversive in our culture (and in the church) than this.

Third, the Lord's Supper raises very difficult questions about the intersection between hospitality and discipline. One might think that hospitality and discipline would be opposed to one another. But actually, hospitality depends on discipline. The Lord's Supper is a perfect example. It takes discipline to gather together as a body at God's table to partake in his meal. Protestants in particular are acutely guilty of lacking this kind of discipline, and as Christians, we need to seriously ponder what this lack of discipline has done to our own perspective on hospitality and doctrinal fidelity. Does it sound sensible that God's people would neglect receiving the hospitality of their Savior through the Lord's Supper and consider it optional or even non-essential? No! It sounds crazy because it is crazy. To neglect the Lord's Supper is to reflect a lack of discipline that results in a lack of receiving hospitality, and probably results in a less-than-vigorous extension of hospitality to others. It also manifests a wider lack of discipline that has wide implications on all areas of life. In our society, essentials have become optionals in matters of vocation, marriage, family, doctrine, etc. Neglect of the Lord's Supper may not directly cause this wider drifting, but it's very consistent with it. How many of us are seriously exploring whether our attitudes (and the church's attitude) about the Lord's Supper are culturally conditioned rather than biblically conditioned? The idea that the church's observance of one of the great sacraments of the Christian religion has become significantly tenderized by cultural attitudes, and that we have become so baptized by cultural individualism that we are too 'comfortably numb' to even explore the issue (much less challenge it) is no immaterial matter.

Good Friday is a sober reflection on the atoning sacrifice of Christ. But Maundy Thursday is also a time for sober reflection. It is a time to seriously consider the grace, mercy, and hospitality of the Lord's Supper, and to examine our reception of it as God's guests. The implications are wide and deep, but I fear the church is largely existing on the surface here.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Ministry Stuff Goin' On

Wanted to provide the latest periodic installment of ministry happenings:

1) My Hospitality course at the church came to an end yesterday, March 9. It was a good course, and it was great to have such a dedicated group of folks attending week after week. In the last few weeks in particular, the number of attendees hovered around 25 people. They were all a great blessing to me. As mentioned in a previous post, my scripts for all 10 lessons are available through a link on the right side of this blog page.

2) There's a possibility that I could be invited to teach the Hospitality course at another church. This would be a wonderful opportunity and I'm hoping it works out. Prayers are appreciated.

3) The Discipleship Explored course that we've been hosting in our home for 8 weeks concluded a week ago. As with the hospitality course, we've had a very dedicated group of around 20 people attending each week. Many of these folks were also involved in the Christianity Explored class that was the precursor to Discipleship Explored that was held last year. By God's grace, through the 7 month timeframe of CE and DE, nobody peeled off and our numbers actually grew a bit during DE. It is such a privilege to have this group of people in our home for food, fellowship, and good study.

4) Now that DE is done, we are fixin' to start a new home-based class that will begin April 7. This class will be a chapter by chapter study of Richard Pratt's book, Pray with Your Eyes Open. Pratt, of course, was a seminary prof of mine at RTS, and I had to read this book as part of one of the classes I took with him. Incredibly, everyone who attended DE has signed up for this new course, and we expect that more people will join us as well. I will be giving some of the group talks and will likely facilitate one of the small group discussions.

5) The church is also very interested in starting a new Christianity Explored course to coincide with Easter. The details of this are still being worked out, and I'm not sure what role I will play in it, if any. But it's possible that this course might also be held at our home on a different night of the week than the Pratt course. We'll have to see.

If anyone who reads this blog and resides in the DC/Northern Virginia area is interested in attending items 4 and 5 above, you are most invited to come join us. I'd love the privilege of meeting you and getting to know you.

Alright, I'll Play

Benjamin Glaser, the 'Backwoods Presbyterian', recently included me on a list of 6 people to list "Six unimportant facts/quirks/habits about myself". As my family will attest, I am a walking quirk, so to identify six specific quirks is sorta like identifying one drop of water in the Atlantic Ocean. On the plus side, it means I have lots of material to draw from:

1) I have more or less eaten the same lunch everyday for nearly 20 years - turkey sandwich on white bread with cheese (usually swiss) and mayonnaise. I've always considered it a little bit of Thanksgiving every day of the year.

2) My wife tells me I do great animal noises. My cow, horse, rooster, and ostrich imitations are always big hits.

3) In 1982, I won the sixth grade spelling bee at my elementary school, and I also went to the Virginia state finals in the 100 yard dash. 1982 was a very good year.

4) I do a very good Godfather imitation and intend to use it extensively with any and all potential 'gentleman callers' of my (hopefully) soon-to-be adopted daughter. I have already rehearsed what my opening line will be to all young men who walk into my home to go on a date with my daughter. In my Marlon Brando voice, I will calmly say with a straight face, "Yes it's true, I'm a Christian. But I also think that torture is completely justified in certain circumstances, such as if my daughter doesn't get home safely, or if the curfew is violated, or if she's struck by a bolt of lightning." I intend to have a baseball bat in plain view during this friendly conversation.

5) As a lifelong Virginian, I fly the state flag of the Commonwealth on the outside of my home. I also make a mean Peanut Soup, which is something of a rite of passage in the Virginia Gentleman department.

6) I tend to be a pretty impatient guy. That's not a big deal. What's odd is that I also greatly enjoy working very big jigsaw puzzles that take months to finish. An odd combination.

I guess the rules of this little internet game require me to pick 6 additional people to provide a similar list. Mercifully, I have instead decided that the chain will die with me. All potential bloggers I could have picked can express their thanks by writing me a check for whatever (enormously huge) amount God leads you to give :)

"Status Is Everything"...

So says The Bank, the new nightclub at the Bellagio Resort in Las Vegas. Amazingly, The Bank, most likely without knowing it, is quite right in this assessment.

He/she who confesses Jesus Christ as Lord has been given a new status, and from the human perspective, this new status is indeed everything. Christians who were once strangers and aliens (Eph 2) are now heirs of the promise. Christians have been adopted into God's family and are now part of the community of the forgiven. Our citizenship is now in heaven (Php 3.20) and we are now children of light. Status really is everything.

The rub, of course, is in how one defines status. The Bellagio's version is based on earthly measures that don't stand the test of time. Money, beauty, glitz, power, fashion sense, and popularity are all measures and discriminators of status. They help separate the 'in-crowd' from those who are on the outside looking in. This is true whether it's the Bellagio, the upper East Side vs the upper West Side, or Saturday night rodeo vs Rodeo Drive. Sadly, such ideas of status have found their way into the church too. The collective new status of Christians surely must trump such earthly definitions of status. But does it really? One has cause to wonder.

Those who question the sovereignty and providence of God should take care to notice The Bank. Even in a place like Las Vegas, God is able to take a pathetically triumphant slogan of superficiality and illuminate truth to those who wish to see it. Status really is everything. It's odd indeed that The Bellagio would be the place to rediscover this truth, but then again, God often works in unexpected ways.

A good preacher has some very good material to work with here.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Pew Study and Designer Religion

The recent Pew Forum study titled, "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" has received a surprising amount of attention not only among religious types, but even in the dinosaur media that normally ignores such things. The major 'finding' of the study that's gotten the most attention is the increasing fickleness of the American public regarding their religious affiliation. A high percentage of Americans have adopted a different religious affiliation (including religious disaffiliation and just 'unaffiliated') from the affiliation of their youth. The implication is that denominational loyalty is in decline, and that designer and consumeristic religion is on the rise. Such findings are not exactly surprising. What is surprising is that they are not exactly accurate.

Designer Religion does not explain the plight of the mainline denominations, and it doesn't offer a way out of their predicament simply by 'rethinking what it means to be the church'. Mainline Christianity is already a designer religion, and has been during its four decade decline. If Americans were only interested in designer religion in some amorphous sense, the mainline would be doing just fine, because that's what it offers people. Evangelicalism is also a designer religion. Yet, they're doing much better.

The bottom line is that the church, liberal and conservative, emphasizes certain things to the demotion of other things. Idols exist in both camps. The church is not very out of touch at all with the individualism of the country. Like individuals, churches are picking and choosing what to teach, how to teach it, and how to live it. The worst thing church leaders can conclude from the Pew Study is that they need resemble the culture more than they already do, and that that would magically solve the church's identity crisis. A 'new way of being the church' that merely accelerates its appeasement to cultural designerism is exactly the wrong thing to do. It will result not only in more and more Americans becoming 'unaffiliated', but the church itself will become unaffiliated too, no matter what brand name is on the church bulletin. It's a formula for getting lost and confused, and offering nothing to the world that it's not already intimately familiar with, even though it wishes it wasn't. There's nothing 'new' about this approach; there's nothing about it that's innovative or forward-looking. It's nothing more than trying to repair the same roof on the same house.

My take on the Pew Study is very different. I think it's likely that the rise of 'unaffiliated' Americans is the result of people not wanting to be locked into a brand name (a particular religious affiliation) that more and more people equate with a truncated spirituality (ie: a designer spirituality). Conventional wisdom is that religious 'consumers' want designer spirituality, but established religious denominations aren't giving it to them, and that this is why denominations are in trouble. This isn't entirely false, but it's not really accurate either. An increasing number of evangelicals and mainliners alike want their spirituality expanded beyond the picking and choosing approach of the church. It's well documented that more and more evangelicals are looking for biblically faithful approaches to poverty, climate change, and global justice. Yes, this is designer religion, but it's a much broader form of it. Likewise, a number of liberal religious folks I know talk about how they want the mainline to move beyond its scripted talking points and mushy theology to embrace something more concrete and more broad.

The problem with institutional religion is that it's not appreciating the desires of many people for a broader and more comprehensive vision of spirituality and religion that touches all aspects of life. There is no religious affiliation that is currently known for offering such a thing. Presbyterians are known as closed off intellectuals who have sacrificed childlike faith on the altar of worldly sophistication and respectability. Evangelicals are knowns as gay haters. The mainline is known for its fights and in believing that not being too sure of anything is a virtue. Is it any wonder why more and more people would rather be 'unaffiliated'? The church will begin broadly succeeding again not when it goes farther down the road of embracing unaffiliated designer religion, but when it does the opposite and presents a robust faith that is comprehensive and all encompassing. This is truly the 'new way of being the church'. But it requires a robust Jesus, a robust theology, a robust commitment to prayer, a robust view of Kingdom, a robust doctrine of Scripture, a robust attitude of godly engagement with the world, and a robust belief in the Rock of our salvation that grounds everything else. This is the kind of 'generous orthodoxy' that will make people proud to be affiliated again, not McLaren's version that simply wants to inconsistently join the culture's spiritual agnosticism and treat it as a badge of honor.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Hospitality Lessons Complete

Just an FYI for anyone who's interested - all of lessons for my Hospitality course are now complete and posted on my church's website. There is a link on the right side of the blog page that will take you there. There are 10 lessons in total, and we will actually finish the course on March 9.

It's been a privilege to teach the course, and we've had a good turnout for it, with a core group of around 16 people that occasionally swells to over 20.

It's possible that I might approach some denomination people to explore whether this course material is worthy of denominational publication. We'll see.

Anyway, enjoy!