This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Monday, September 23, 2013

"Life or Death?"

            Over the coming year, our presbytery is going to be looking at six basic questions from Paul Nixon’s book, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church.  In the introduction, Nixon makes the case for apostolic leadership in the church.  By that he means that leaders know themselves to be sent into the world with good news, based on a real and personal encounter with Jesus Christ.
            Nixon suggests that even social-justice liberals have had such experiences, but usually frame them differently.  His example is of the pastor who, upon reflection, remembered a seminal encounter with a homeless person in which she saw Jesus’ face.
            It is really crucial that we realize the living of Presence of Jesus Christ with, within, and among us.  He is, of course.  But often we are not in the habit of specifically identifying him.  When we prayerfully consider our story, it occurs to us that there are many ways in which we experience the powerful Presence of the Lord, that he was and is with us all along.
            I hope we pay close attention to this point as we discuss Nixon’s book.  Everything else he goes on to say is built on his idea of apostolicity rooted in a direct encounter with the living Lord.
            For instance, the first of the six choices before the church may be the post important: Life or death?  In many ways churches today are choosing to die.  Usually this is done unconsciously.  When we dissolve into nostalgia about the way things used to be, and fervently wish for nothing else than that those days return, we are effectively choosing to die.  When we treat the church like a social club, or an institution that must be maintained at all costs, we are choosing to die.  When we pick the wrong side of any of Nixon’s choices – isolation, drudgery, mildness, being a fortress, and procrastination – we are actually expressing our first choice, which is death instead of life.
            And life, from an apostolic mindset, is identified as the life we receive in Jesus Christ.  I distinguish this kind of life from the counterfeit excuse for life that is imposed upon us by the Empire.  That would be “life” as measured by secular, quantitative categories.  In informal parlance, these categories are summed up as the 3-B’s: butts, bucks, and bricks, that is, membership, money, and buildings.  A church that is evaluating its ministry in terms of these things is not following Jesus.  For nowhere does Jesus give any positive attention at all to the 3-B’s.  A church that follows them is living according to the Empire’s model for “success.”  Nowhere does Jesus ever even ask the question, “What can we afford?” in these terms, let alone use such a question as a basis for action.
            In his chapter on this choice, Nixon basically says that a pastor should locate and cultivate in the congregation those who have vision, energy, and passion for ministry.  On the other hand, those who make themselves drags and roadblocks, should be tended to pastorally, but not permitted to set the church’s agenda.  While Nixon seems to allow that this will be difficult, he does not really go into the possible, if not likely, consequences of this strategy.  The people who effectively choose death, who are not the “vision shareholders,” who are often the majority, may withhold their support from the church.  If we are talking about a small church with little or no endowment, this may mean the church will have trouble paying its bills.  And if those people are so angry as to leave, we are left with a severe deficit in at least 2 of the 3-B’s, with the third in jeopardy.
            Nixon does not talk about how to handle this.  He seems to assume these dead-weight-members can be charmed into participation.  He does not address what happens when a church that has taken his advice goes to a judicatory for assistance, and all the judicatory sees is membership and income dropping off a cliff.  I know for a fact that many judicatories will write off such a church as a “failure,” and refuse to “throw more money at” it.  What normally ensues is part-time ministry, which is often the death-knell for a congregation that has not yet been equipped with strong leadership.
            Churches know all this, at least intuitively.  Which is why so few are willing to take Nixon’s advice.  Even with a visionary, apostolic pastor, everyone knows that losing a large percentage of a church’s members, or their support, even if it is necessary to set free a newly arising missional leadership group, will attract, well, vultures.  (This is especially the case in polities where the assets of a closed church go to the judicatory.  I know of judicatories that use assets so acquired to keep the assessments on churches low, thus further incentivizing the closing of churches!)
            Clearly, the regional denominational bodies must catch the vision and support risky, innovative, out-of-the box ministries in churches.  They have to be willing to accept sometimes massive membership losses in churches, before and as a condition of those churches turning around.  (See my blog-post, “Small Enough to Grow, at
            I hope and pray that our presbytery, in grappling with the principles in this book will lead us to new ways of thinking and acting that reflect and express the apostolicity of leadership in the church.  I hope we can encourage and empower local churches to take Nixon’s advice without fear of abandonment.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Like I Said...

After putting up the previous post I happened upon 2 articles making my point that confessing Jesus as God is an affront to the Empire and those who think Christianity should be its lapdog.

Check out:

"The Christology of dominionist Tea party politics deemphasizes many of the claims of Christ’s divinity, and is very much in the deist tradition...." 

And, here's Tony Jones:

It is remarkable that this confession is offensive to some on both the left and the right.  

If Jesus is God, and God is God….

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to. ...  Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”
            –C. S. Lewis

            That is one of the more famous quotes from C.S. Lewis.  It is still routinely used by Christians to talk about Jesus’ divinity.  Either Jesus is who he says he is in the gospels, the living God, or he is mentally ill, a lying, deluded lunatic unworthy of our attention, let alone our worship.  There is no middle ground.  To many of those of us who follow Jesus, this seems pretty airtight. 
            But we do not live in C.S. Lewis’ society, where it seemed to everyone “obvious that He was neither lunatic nor a fiend.”  In the Britain of the 1940’s, the idea that Jesus was psychotic was probably considered pretty impolite, gauche, and out of the question.
            Unfortunately, that is not out of the question for everyone today.  Too many these days would have no problem saying that Jesus was insane and all his followers, no matter how intelligent, were and are deluded.  In fact, if measured by people’s actual behavior, this is actually the dominant view in the Western world, though most remain well-mannered enough not to actually say this in so many words.  We won’t admit that Jesus was crazy, but even most of those who call themselves “Christians” know it would  be crazy to actually follow him.  We have figured out how to mouth the doctrine about how “he is God,” while at the same time conveniently treating him like an eccentric, na├»ve, idealistic do-gooder whose teachings and actions were commendable but are certainly not to be imitated. 
            Some have taken a different approach. They try to “save Jesus” from this dichotomy by deciding that Jesus “didn’t really say” what the New Testament says he said.  This mainly applies to Jesus’ claims to be God, but also to his miracles and even to his resurrection.  Once they have extracted from the gospels this purported “historical Jesus” who really didn’t claim to be God, they allow people to avoid Lewis’ harsh choice (he’s either God or he’s nuts) and simply receive Jesus as a great moral teacher.
            I think they think that the claim that Jesus is God resulted in superior, exclusive, and violent approaches to other religions, and that this is not a good thing in our more pluralistic world.  I think they think that this claim is somehow an imperialistic and unnecessary embellishment of an essentially simple story.  Perhaps.  But that is not the intention. 
            Unmolested by such arbitrarily selective and self-serving interpretations, however, there is no question that the Jesus depicted in the gospels does indeed claim to be, in some sense, God.  He clearly and repeatedly says of himself, and allows others to say of him, that he is God’s Son, the Messiah, the Son of Man, one with the Father, “I Am,” and so forth.  Sorting that all out is one of the main theological tasks of his subsequent followers.  But the texts say what they say and we have no legitimate basis for editing out the parts that make us uncomfortable.  To do that is an expression of self-righteous hubris and arrogance.  Not only that, it is to apply violence to the text itself.  Approaching Jesus with this kind of patronizing attitude separates one from the circle of those who trust and obey him.
            The Theological Declaration of Barmen, the courageous statement by a small minority in the German church against Nazism in 1934, contains the words: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God, which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”  Any theology that doesn’t begin here,  capitulates to the principalities and powers, the empires (manifested in that time by no less than Hitler) that dominate human existence. 
            By giving up the claim that Jesus is God, some are unwittingly and necessarily asserting the opposite claim, that the Empire is the ultimate authority from whom all blessings flow.  One of the original confessions made by Jesus’ followers was that “Jesus is Lord!”   If we render that confession inert by asserting that Jesus himself made no such claim, we are left with the ideology it was meant to oppose, that only Caesar is Lord.  Every quest for a “historical Jesus” different from the Jesus Christ presented in the New Testament is therefore inherently imperialistic.  It is to give no counter-claim in answer to the raw assertion of the Empire that might-makes-right.
            But this basic Christian affirmation that Jesus is God is an important and indispensible claim not because it asserts domination or superiority over other religions, but because it unites us to them through him.
            The God of the Bible, the sovereign Lord and Creator of the universe, is not a local, tribal deity tethered to a particular piece of real estate, expressed in only one culture.  This God does not belong to a particular tribe or nation.  God is not in “competition” with other deities and religions.  There are no other deities.  If God is God of all creation and humanity then all religions are, in some sense and to some degree, authentic responses to the one God in different times and places.  The same God reigns in India, China, America, Europe, and Africa, as was worshipped by Israel.  (See Amos 9:5-7.)   To argue otherwise would imply that God is not Lord everywhere for everyone. 
            This turns C. S. Lewis’ famous argument on its head.  Either the claims, accomplishments, and promise of other faiths have some truth in them as well, or we have to decide that an awful lot of people, including some of the wisest, most spiritually adept, and best people who ever lived, are deluded fools in the grip of superstition.  To do so would be to limit God to being merely the private deity of Europeans, who depends on us to carry him around and impose him by force on these other cultures.
            Lewis assumed it would be repugnant to say Jesus was a lying fool.  As wise and good a man as he was, I believe he would think it equally repugnant to infer that the followers of every other religion were necessarily lying fools.  It is precisely Jesus’ claim to be God that makes it necessary for us to be open to others’ experiences of the one God, in and through him.  For if Jesus is God, it means he does not belong to us.  Rather, we and all people, and the whole creation, belong to him.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Say No to SNAP Cuts.

The following is a letter I wrote today to the editor of the Star-Ledger.  Writing to a general audience, I used mainly economic arguments.  But I am mainly motivated to do so as a person of faith and a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Jesus devoted much of his ministry to healing the sick, freeing those in bondage, and feeding the hungry.  He clearly said that he is himself present wherever we find people in need.  

There are those who claim that "he meant this for individuals, not the government."  I remind these folks that we live in a democracy where we are responsible for the government.  Our responsibilities as Christians do not end when we go into the voting booth or seek to influence government policy.  We cannot claim to follow Jesus everywhere else, but decide his teachings are irrelevant when it comes to political decisions.  As a Christian citizen I hope to see the people I elect make decisions on my behalf that represent God's values of justice, peace, love, and equality.

Dear Editor,

The Congress may vote as early as this week on a program vital to the lives of many Americans: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as “Food Stamps.”  Due to SNAP, 4.7 million Americans were lifted above the poverty line in 2011, including over 2 million children.  It is one of the most effective anti-poverty programs we have and without it the recent recession would have been much worse.  I urge citizens of New Jersey to contact our Senators and Representatives in support of SNAP.

SNAP also has broader economic benefits to our communities, since money received is immediately spent in local businesses.  Every dollar of SNAP benefits generates $1.80 in economic growth.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that between 8,900 and 17,900 full time jobs are created for every $1 billion spent on SNAP.  New Jersey alone is receiving around $1 billion from the SNAP program this year.   Clearly these resources are essential in sustaining our recovery and creating jobs in our State.

Over 900,000 residents of New Jersey received benefits from SNAP in 2012 (that’s about 10% of the population).  It is estimated that even in our most affluent Congressional District (the 7th), there could be 50,000 recipients. 

To cut this program harms those among us least able to put food on the table.  Those receiving SNAP benefits are children (47%), the disabled, the elderly, and the working poor.  The consequences of inadequate nutrition on children are well documented to include a decrease in mental and physical health and reduced socialization skills, leading to more expensive problems as these children get older.

The impact of the SNAP program on the Federal Budget fluctuates with the state of the economy, as it is supposed to.  Participation rose significantly in 2008 and 2009.  But as the economy improves and people find work, the expenditures will continue to decrease, as they have for the last few years.  But to cut these essential benefits will be to slow the recovery, and keep more people mired in poverty. 

Contrary to the misinformation currently being disseminated about, SNAP is one of the most effective and efficient of all Federal programs.  Ninety-five percent of expenditures go to needy people, and the program has an amazingly low fraud rate of under 5%.

It is not only immoral to attempt to balance the Federal Budget on the backs of those least able to pay, it hurts the whole economy too.

Rev. Paul F. Rack
Martinsville, NJ