Tag Archives: Theology

The tension of the green season

Sunday begins the long season after Pentecost with the green liturgical color. As a young child, I remember that we called it “the growing season.” Which fits both with the color and with the orientation.

We call this season “ordinary time,” that is, there is nothing special. No Christmas, no Easter, no Pentecost. No special days whatsoever to provide a change in movement. It is a long season that plods along as it passes. It reminds me of the monotony that often accompanies life.

The beginning of the “growing season” also coincides with the General Synod, the annual meeting of the broadest assembly in my communion, the Reformed Church in America. I have the privilege of attending each year to shepherd a group of young people through what is happening at the synod and how it may impact their own sense of call. This also affords me a somewhat unique perspective as I have been able to be in attendance at every synod for the past five years.

Each year, I can feel my anxiety rise. Each year, I think, this will be the year that everything falls apart. And each year the deliberations are intense and filled with passion. Each year I am happy about some things and less than happy about others. But each year we leave as the same communion as we entered.

***

My greatest strength, as I see it, is my deep passion. However, this is also my greatest weakness. I have never been afraid to be outspoken on a variety of topics. While I strive to avoid insult and divisiveness, my convictions come through. While I strive to have reasoned and balanced positions and arguments, at times my enhanced anxieties try to take the driver’s seat.

The season of General Synod is always a difficult one. It is filled with joy and sadness, with worry and confidence, with hope and despair. It is a season where I try to tame the passions so as not to get carried off in fear and forget the greater scheme of things. It is a season where I try to take a long view, a view consistent with the greater kingdom/queendom of God.

It is important for me to remember that I serve a sovereign God who cannot be thwarted by anything that I, or the General Synod, can do. It is important for me to remember that just because something doesn’t work out the way that I would prefer it to, doesn’t mean that God did not direct the proceedings.

In short, it is a growing season for me.

These are lessons that are central to my formation as a follower of Christ, and as someone who is called to reflect the image of God.

The General Synod meets beginning on June 9. Please pray for us that we can wrestle and struggle together, trusting one another and trusting God. Please pray for us that we can listen for and pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit. And please pray for me, that I might be able to grow in my capacity to display grace and love.

“… if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God” it will come to completion.

Thanks be to God.

 

Denominational Unity?

I have neglected writing the last week or so, as I have been working at this year’s meeting of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, my denomination’s highest assembly. I have previously written a bit about my role this year.

This year’s meeting had a great deal of tension both surrounding it, and within it. Several overtures (requests for the General Synod to take action on something) were received on a variety of topics, a few of which were “hot button topics” within our denomination. Most everyone who was aware of the business with which the General Synod was going to deal knew that this meeting would be a difficult one. I have been wrong before, and my hope is that I would have been wrong again, however, I was not.

There was a lot of difficult discussion, there was a great deal of pain on both sides of the discussion. Tensions ran high, so high, in fact, that one could literally feel the tension on the floor of the assembly. The theme of the General Synod was “Unity in Diversity.” The theme of the General Synod is chosen by the President, which changes every year, and permeates much of General Synod including sermons at worship and the music. The tension could also be felt with the folks who argued that unity is not our goal, that unity is not possible, that we are a divided denomination that could not be unified because we are divided on one topic.

The most difficult day of General Synod was Monday, June 25. That was the day in which we deliberated all of the divisive topics. There were passionate people on both sides of the subjects, people who take scripture seriously and seek to make an honest interpretation of scripture. However, it is clear that there is not a consistent interpretation of some scriptures in the Reformed Church in America.

After plenary, I could see tears on the faces of some delegates, and many delegates were exhausted — long deliberations on topics which cut deeply are very taxing emotionally, and consequently, physically. I prefer not to get caught into the snare of talking about “winners” and “losers,” it was simply a difficult day for all of us. The very next day, we celebrated our closing worship.

It was an interesting juxtaposition, because at our closing worship, we sang a song that we also sang at opening worship, called, “One for the World.” The refrain goes as follows:

One for the world. One for the Savior.

United in love, now and forever.

Break down the walls, joining together,

in God’s love, we are one, one for the world.

There were people on “both sides” who did not attend closing worship, and who did not want to hear about or talk about unity, as many of our discussions seemed to arise from a root of disunity. Some expressed the fact that we are not united, while others were not yet ready to sing a song expressing our unity because of the pain that still lingered from the difficult debates that happened as well as some of the votes that were taken.

I had similar feelings. I felt frustration and I felt hurt at the general tone of deliberation on the floor. I know that the entire denomination is not united in thought on a couple of these subjects, but the question continues to remain: are we united? Our motto on the Crest of the Reformed Church in America is “Eendracht maakt Macht” (Concord makes strength). Even despite our differences do we continue to have and display concord?

My answer is yes, and no. We do have some degree of concord in that we all subscribe to the Constitution of the Reformed Church in America, and that we all “believe in the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and as expressed in the Standards of the Reformed Church in America” (Formulary 3: Declaration for Ministers of Word and Sacrament). On the other hand, we lack a degree of concord because we have such different interpretations on a select group of topics, and it often seems as though the two interpretations simply cannot coëxist with one another.

Despite these differing interpretations and despite the seeming disunity, I went to closing worship, and I sang the song “One for the World.” During this, it occurred to me, perhaps we are talking about unity not so much because there is a spirit of unity, but because there ought to be a spirit of unity. Perhaps we are not being descriptive, but rather formative. Perhaps our sermons and songs about unity are not because we already have a great sense of unity, perhaps they are intended to form us, that even in our diversity on some scriptural interpretations, perhaps we must still seek unity.

This is difficult, of course. All people who join a church of the Reformed Church in America make promises before the Board of Elders to “seek those things which make for unity, purity, and peace.” All Ministers of Word and Sacrament and General Synod Professors promise to “[seek] the things which make for unity, purity, and peace.” We all have to hold in balance the unity and purity of the church, even when sometimes these seem to conflict. We have to take seriously Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of John, “‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one'” (17:20-21a, NRSV) as well as Paul’s admonition to the church at Corinth, “‘Drive out the wicked person from among you'” (1 Cor 5:13b, NRSV).

We need to hold both of these in tension. This is why the theme of “Unity in Diversity” was so important, and this is why I could go to closing worship and sing about our unity, even though the previous day we had a very divisive deliberation on the assembly floor. I serve the church not because the church is perfect or has everything figured out, but because I believe that the church is the Body of Christ, even despite all of our sin, despite all of our division, despite all of our infighting. I continue to think on these theme of unity, not because we have necessarily achieved it, not because we can even agree what it means, but because Christ desires it for us, and this is what the church is called to wrestle with.

In this way, I found the theme of General Synod to be formative rather than descriptive. It was to form what we are to be, rather than to describe what we are. It was to show us what Christ calls us to, even if we do not exactly agree on what that looks like. It was an invitation to continue wrestling with one another, because wrestling is not bad, wrestling is not necessarily harmful — wrestling means that we’re still alive, that we’re still engaged, and that we’re still committed to living out the faith as we understand it.

My Only Comfort

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

(Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 1)

Accepting Jesus as Personal Savior? (Part 2)

In the first part, I discussed exegetically and theologically some of the challenges when talking about “accepting Jesus”.  In this second (and much shorter) part and conclusion, I will address the problems with the second part of the statement, referring to Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.

The terminology “personal Lord and savior” is problematic because it is not biblical in any way. Scripture never calls Jesus our personal savior, scripture refers to Jesus as the savior of the world. Our relationship with God is not simply “me and Jesus” but it includes the Body of Christ, the church, with whom we must be joined in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus. When we speak of Jesus as our personal savior, then we have no need of a broader body. For instance, I have a personal computer that I do not need to share with others and I have a personal refrigerator in my office which I purchased, and which belongs to me, and is used for my items.

Jesus is not my personal savior or your personal savior. Jesus is the savior of the world. You see, either God is God or not. If Jesus is our personal savior, then the door opens for us to understand others to have different personal saviors, which would certainly be okay because person a can have a personal savior and person b can have a personal savior, but since they are different people, their personal saviors can be different. This reduces the stretch of God and opens the door for pluralism (or universalism), something which evangelicals (those who primarily use this “accepting” and “personal” language) certainly do not want.

Finally, scripture tells us that we did not choose Jesus, but Jesus chose us (John 15:16). Perhaps a better way to talk about this experience is that we have responded to God’s call. There certainly has to be some sort of response, because if God has called us we will bear fruit. Rather than asking if someone has accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and savior, perhaps it would be better to ask if they have felt the call of God. This is more likely to open up a conversation, I know it would with me, and holds the potential for a more fruitful interaction, and a better way to discuss the real issue at hand.

Accepting Jesus as Personal Savior? (Part 1)

I cringe every time I hear someone ask me if I’ve accepted Jesus as my “personal Lord and Savior”, primarily because I don’t know how to answer.

I identify as a child of the covenant. I was baptized when I was an infant, and when I was growing up, I responded to the promises that God made in my baptism. So while I do identify as a Christian, and a follower of Jesus, and a child of the covenant, I never had a time that I “accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior” and I never said the “sinner’s prayer.” I also cringe, because I do not think that this is the best way to think about it. I think that the language of “accepting Jesus” and “personal Lord and savior” are both problematic.

The language of “accepting Jesus” is appealing to the ear of American individualists, but it is problematic for two main reasons, the first of which we will discuss in this first part: talk about accepting Jesus is not entirely biblical.

The Bible, particularly the New Testament, does not speak of “accepting Jesus”.  Some English translations do use the word “accept” in various places (such as the NIV), and below are some of the different ways that it is used.  I have also included the lexical form of the Greek word that is used in each instance.

John 5:43, “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept [λαμβάνω] him” (NRSV)

John 14:17 “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive [λαμβάνω], because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (NRSV)

Romans 15:7 Welcome [(NIV: Accept) προσλαμβάνω] one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed [(NIV: accepted) προσλαμβάνω] you, for the glory of God” (NRSV)

Romans 10:16 “But not all have obeyed [(NIV: Accepted) υπακούω] the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?'” (NRSV)

Romans 14:1 “Welcome [(NIV: Accept) προσλαμβάνω] those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. ” (NRSV)

1 Corinthians 2:14 ” Those who are unspiritual do not receive [(NIV: accept) δέχομαι] the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are discerned spiritually. ” (NRSV)

The easiest words to explain are υπακούω (hear, listen, understand, learn from) and δέχομαι (take, take up, approve or accept things, put up with or tolerate someone or something).  The word that appears more often and requires a bit more discussion is λαμβάνω.

λαμβάνω generally means “take”, but it can have several connotations.  It can mean to actively take as in take a hold of something or grasp, it can mean to take into one’s possession, it can mean receive or accept things, such as takes, it can mean to passively receive something or get something, and it can mean to take up receive including recognizing authority.  This last interpretation is what we see above in John 5:43, and this is probably the closest way that one can talk about “accepting Jesus” as in recognizing Jesus’ authority.  Another interesting aside, the usage of λαμβάνω in John 5:43 is descriptive rather than prescriptive, and denotes something that did or did not happen (or will or will not happen), not necessarily a command to do something.

While the Bible does not talk about “accepting Jesus” it does use two other words: believe and confess.

Romans 10:9 “because if you confess [ομολόγησις] with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe [πιστεύω] in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NRSV)

Acts 16:31 “They answered, ‘Believe [πιστεύω] on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ ” (NRSV)

The word ομολόγησις refers to confessing as an act and not as a state of mind or a thought. The word πιστεύω refers to belief as in believe in something, to be convicted of something, to let oneself be influenced, convicted, trust, have confidence in.  These are all connotations of πιστεύω, and these have the more intellectual or affectual undertones.  I find it interesting that the passage above in Romans contains the words ομολόγησις and πιστεύω but not λαμβάνω, and moreover, it includes both an outward action, as well as an internal intellectual/affectual movement — which I suppose is similar to saying the “sinner’s prayer”. It is also important to note that Romans says to confess that Jesus is Lord, not accept that Jesus is Lord, and to believe that God raised him from the dead, not accept that.

The terms confess and believe referring to Jesus are far more biblical terms than “acceptance” which often carries the connotation of giving approval to or to give admission to, neither of which adequately describes our relationship to God.

Additionally, theologically speaking, it places the locus of control on us. I speak from a Midwestern American context, and in such a context we like to be in control of our lives. We like to feel like we can stand on our own two feet, and we like to feel as though we can control our own destinies. We like to feel as though if we fail it is because of bad choices, and we like to feel as though our successes are because of good choices that we made. It is only natural, then, that it should be up to us to accept Jesus or to reject Jesus. After all, it would not seem right for that decision to be made by anyone else but us. Moreover, talking about accepting Jesus places us in a position of control over God. If I apply to a job, they are the ones that have the power over me, because they do the accepting or the rejecting. Therefore, this acceptance language almost is as if we are in a position of authority over Jesus and we are the ones determining whether we should accept him or not.

This is problematic is because it places everything upon us. Our entire relationship to God is then dependent on us, as though none of God’s work was effective until we make it effective. In this worldview Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection only has meaning insofar as we give it meaning, and it has any efficacy only insofar as we accept its efficacy. This, certainly puts us in a position of power over God as we are the ones who determine if God’s work has any ability to restore or redeem.

I think the better question for us to ask is if Jesus will accept us!

Why a Reformed Presence is Important in the City

I am a Reformed minister through-and-through, and I feel very strongly about the Reformed theology.  I do not think Reformed theology is the only way of being a Christian, I simply think that it is a good way.  I think that is Biblically sound, and I think that it speaks to our world in a way that other traditions do not.  Some people tell me that theology doesn’t really matter in the inner-city, particularly when educational attainment is not incredibly high.  This is, of course, something that I vehemently disagree with.

First, I think that it is wrong to assume that educational attainment alone dictates someone’s capacity for understanding is short sighted.  I have known many wise people that had a 9th grade education, and I have known many dull people with master’s degrees.  Secondly, it downplays what Reformed theology has to offer the world.

I don’t use the words sovereignty, providence, election, irresistable grace, or atonement in the regular course of my preaching and teaching.  These are all terms that are near and dear to Reformed theology.  However, I talk about them all the time.  These doctrines are prevalent in my preaching and teaching, they are what I stand on, and they are the avenues through which I communicate the faith.  Reformed theology is not important so that we can use big terms like this or be able to understand the finer points of the differentiation between orthodox Reformed theology and Arminianism.  Reformed theology is important because it stands on the bedrock of God and God’s grace.

Rather than starting with humans, the Reformed start with God.  The idea of starting with ourselves makes sense when we feel as though we can depend on ourselves, on our abilities, on our capacities.  However, if we feel (or better, when we finally realize) that we cannot depend on ourselves, suddenly relying upon a theology that begins with us is not as comforting and stabalizing.  We understand that it is a foundation which is not solid and will shift around a lot, causing the building of faith to fall.

When we feel as through we’re empowered and that we largely direct our own destiny, the idea of the sovereignty of God can offend our individualistic sensibilities.  When we feel as though we can provide for ourselves through employment, the providence of God doesn’t seem to be that relevant.  When we feel as though we are able to make the decisions for our lives and that our lives are under our own control, irresistable grace and election seem to contradict the respect for our own agency.

It is true that no one really cares about soverginty, providence, irresistable grace, election, etc… but people do care about the fact that God is in control and nothing is out of God’s reach, people do care that God provides for us, people do care that God pursues us even before we begin pursuing God, that graciously chooses us for God’s own. These are all benefits of a distinctively Reformed witness in the city.

In the midst of a community where people are told that they must speak in tounges, that they must be careful not to lose their salvation, that if they do something wrong God will leave them, that if they sin, they must turn back to God on their own…I am proud to be a witness that stands upon, first and foremost God’s action and then secondarily our response, and a witness that is founded upon God and God’s grace.  This is why I think and believe very strongly that a Reformed presence in the city is so very important.