I am happy to announce that I have published a small collection of some of my writings. “The View from Right Field – Thoughts on God, Life & the Stuff in Between” is a collection of stories and essays that range from reflections on the church and spiritual life to rural America and journeys overseas as well as 2 short stories that delve into the mystery of lost Spanish gold and the tumult of the Reformation era.
You can read on-line or download for free from Smashbooks. fair & courteous feedback appreciated!
Over the last 3 months, I have visited at least 9 churches in the Medford, OR area. As a new resident, I have been checking out the local stores, coffee spots and cuisine as well as local congregations. Going to a new church is probably the toughest! Visiting churches can be enjoyable, as I am able to see what’s happening and what’s being done on Sunday morning in regard to music and preaching but on the other hand it is difficult as an introvert and a male 60 years old to walk into a new building, alone. I struggle with being overly self-conscious of my status as a visitor and stranger who wants to be welcomed and feel a part but not interrogated as to my business being there, job status, and spiritual condition. I recognize it’s a tough job for anyone greeting or meeting me! Yet, I persist, in my curiosity and desire to see what God’s up to and find a place I might belong. Ages ago, I worked for STAPLES, the office supply company. They were part of a program called “Mystery Shopper” that sent people into stores to see how the staff did, i.e. helpfulness, courteousness, knowledge and how long it took for staff to greet & offer help. Since one of my pastimes is writing amateur reviews for places I visit, I thought I would come up with my own rating system for churches as a “Mystery Worshipper.” The following are the categories I chose to rate on a scale of 1-10 (1=poor / 10= excellent). Music and singing: Message / Preaching: Order of service / Liturgy (Prayer – Offering – Lord’s Table). I define liturgy in part as a predictable pattern of spiritual actions repeated each week in a gathered worship service. By that definition, all churches are liturgical, in that they have a set pattern of what happens when every Sunday or meeting time from songs, announcements, offering, prayer and message. Of course, you can test this by changing the order and see how people react! “Standard” refers to the current custom of music / message / offering. Welcome & hospitality: Coffee: Mission to the area: Theological spectrum: Best moment: Worst moment: Did they sing that song? (Oceans by Hillsong – the over played, song that won’t end, the song leader’s back-up when there’s no energy to find something newer, better or more profound – like “Just as I am” for the previous generation). Likelihood I’d come back:
Music and singing: Praise band, started with brief, instrumental “set-the- mood” music, current popular praise hits.
Message / Preaching: Woman on staff spoke from letter to the Hebrews; To be clear, I enjoy women using their gifts as pastors in teaching and preaching but she didn’t really explore the text, nor highlight the key points of chapters 4 & 5, application did not seem connected to the text.
Order of service – Standard: Worship leader said he was our “host” for the morning (!). Communion (crackers and juice) was announced but not explained, if I was a child, I would have thought it was snack time for adults!
Welcome & hospitality: Not greeted
Mission to the area: Not mentioned
Theological spectrum: Charismatic – (Four Square)
Best moment: Stand-up acoustic bass used in band.
Worst moment: Not being able to find a free rest room.
Did they sing that song? Afraid so!
Likelihood I’d come back: Unlikely
New Song – (5) 4041 Crater Lk. Ave. Suite E, Medford, OR. 97504
Music and singing: Older praise band, competent but played in lower key; old praise songs.
Message / Preaching: Youth pastor spoke; used material from Bible study on communication; interesting and helpful but no real Bible text was explored or applied.
Order of service – Standard, crackers & juice.
Welcome & hospitality: Was welcomed by one gentleman and played 20 questions about why I was new to Medford.
Coffee: Yes, didn’t try.
Mission to the area: Pastor does street evangelism.
Music and singing: Very competent, praise group, enjoyable to listen to; songs lacked substance, usual clichés.
Message / Preaching: Well-structured and presented message on parable of Jesus, with humor, could tell the speaker had put his work into it as well as his biceps which were on display. However, he left out what was most important – Jesus’ own commentary on the parable!
Order of service: Standard – crackers & juice served.
Welcome & hospitality: One staff member shook my hand.
Coffee: Didn’t try it.
Mission to the area: Not mentioned.
Theological spectrum: Evangelical
Best moment: Listening to the praise group.
Worst moment: A distraught child, not well attended by his parents.
Did they sing that song? No
Likelihood I’d come back: While this church had the most coherent message, probably not.
Bear Creek – (3) 816 Black Oak Drive Medford OR 97504
Message / Preaching: Pastor was away, so there was no message but brief comments from a Paul Tripp book were read which was helpful but unclear as to what was his and what was not.
Order of service: Standard with part of a psalm read. Total service was less than 35 minutes, and that included a video for an upcoming visit by blogger Tim Challies, book critic, self-appointed discerner for Big Name Evangelical brands.
Welcome & hospitality: Absolutely zero.
Coffee: Didn’t try it.
Mission to the area: Not sure
Theological spectrum: Conservative, reformed evangelical, ala Gospel Coalition & Philadelphia / Westminster Seminary Magisterium.
Best moment: 3 signs behind the band – Jesus as my prophet, priest and king – nice to be reminded of that!
Worst moment: We’re done already? 30 minutes? There is no one competent who could deliver a message?
Music and singing: 1982 Episcopal Hymnal, Traditional hymns, pipe organ and cantor.
Message / Preaching: Lectionary texts, generic message on
giving each other slack, only time current president mentioned (negative) but
also was included in prayers of the people.
Order of service: 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
Welcome & hospitality: Passed the peace
Coffee: Didn’t try it.
Mission to the area: Nothing specific mentioned.
Theological spectrum: Mainline liberal.
Best moment: Strong singing, cantor led in responsive song.
Worst moment: Asking visitors to stand and introduce
themselves – introvert nightmare!
Did they sing that song? Thankfully, no.
Likelihood I’d come back: Some more contemplative services mentioned which look intriguing.
Some biased observations from 24 plus years of preaching, worship leading and pastoring – the bulk of the time was given to the speaker. I heard no heresy or bizarre teaching, but the word of God was not the focus – it was the springboard for the speaker’s ideas. There was humor, stories, and a few PowerPoint Bible references but verses were plucked from here and there with no discernable exploration or explication of the word. In addition, besides an opening prayer, one for the offering and a closing one, any kind of prayer for the nation, our leaders, the church or the world were absent. On the positive side, there was only 1 instance of political commentary. However, if the rule of prayer is the rule of faith (lex ore, lex fide – as the ancients used to say), then I might assume that the “means of grace” is limited to singing, listening to a message, coffee, & crackers & juice.
It was evident the people gathering together and their leaders of where I’ve visited are sincere and committed to serving the Lord. So many churches doing the same thing reminds me of competing franchises – each serving their version of their best burger -a different flavored bun, a new topping, a variation in seasoning but at the bare basics – the same. Like it or not, franchises compete for consumers and consumers, fickle creatures that we are, are drawn by the new, what’s popular or the hot feature of the moment. Churches are tempted and challenged by the same market forces that shape consumer expectations as part of the “experience economy.” These may lead to a subtle (or not so subtle) competition.
Will I return to any of these congregations? Will I pick one, join and get involved? I’m not sure. I realize that it takes more than a one-time visit to make an informed decision. The trouble is, I’m not much of a “joiner” these days and I’m not interested in an inward focused, building-based organization. Yes, I am a tough customer. I’ve been told “why bother” by others in the past but I am not ready to give up. My search continues.
“Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” Mark 13:5-6
(Lectionary Reading for 11/18/18).
40 years ago today, Jim Jones killed over 918 people in the Jonestown massacre, the culmination of years of manipulation, misconduct, drug fueled paranoia, violence and abuse of all kinds. A one time, Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Assembly of God preacher who shared a platform once with William Branham, Jones developed his own eclectic blend of evangelical, social justice, inter-racial equality brand of religion at the People’s Temple in San Francisco, CA but ended in the forced death of his followers and U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan among others.
Jones has been one of many that promised heaven but delivered death. Others have followed like David Koresh (1993- 80 dead) and Heaven’s Gate (1997- 39). In these cases, toxic religion may have first been an opiate that turned into strychnine.
Faith is a force for good in our world. Distorted religion doesn’t present itself as poison. It may look like Kool Aid (or Flavor Aid) at first. But when the gospel is replaced by an ideology, whether of the left or the right, or MAGA nationalism, or supplanted by a cult of personality, along with authoritarian demands for obedience, idealized, hero worship of political leaders as god-like, spineless clergy and court paid prophets, the suppression of dissent and a major dose of media propaganda, then the body count will eventually add up.
I drove by city hall and saw that the generic nativity scene was out already. I couldn’t wait for my new “MAGA — Trump” Nativity scene to arrive! It came yesterday and I removed all the Jews, Arabs, and foreigners. Ended up with a jackass and a handful of sheep. Perfect!
“…and satan took the evangelical church to the pinnacle of the Supreme Court and said ‘fall down and worship me & I will give you the justices of your dreams and the church said ‘what position do you want us to assume your majesty?”
Religious institutionalism and exploitative consumerism turn Christ’s suffering, crucifixion and death into a historical artifact to be dusted off once a year. Artifacts are convenient ways to ignore a disturbing truth.
Christ’s suffering, death and victory on the cross are not only to be remembered as past tense, but are a present reality. Jesus’ death in the action of the Lord’s Table is a commanded practice, a remembrance, a proclamation of his victory (1 Cor. 11:26), a communion of a present reality between heaven and earth (1 Cor. 10:16), and a foretaste of his coming again in glory (1 Cor. 11:26).
Yet, Christ may be crucified again as the writer of Hebrews mentions (6:6).
Where is Christ crucified again?
In the denial of his own people of his saving atonement or in the abandonment of their covenant with him when they substitute earthly powers for his Lordship whether out of fear or political or worldly expediency or their own self-righteousness for his blood bought gift.
He is also crucified again in the sufferings of his people who face rejection, loss, threats, beatings, prison or death whether in Iran, India or China.
He is also crucified again in the suffering of countless and nameless people all over the world who are flogged, tortured, kept behind bars, denied justice and voice to defend themselves as he was in the name of national security or the war on drugs or terror whether in Guatemala or Guantanamo.
In the prayers of the desperate and abandoned, and the singing of his saints, his cry of forsakenness and abandonment (Mt. 27:46) and his declaration of victory (John 19:30) have not been silenced.
“Merry Christmas” has become the rallying cry of the jingoism of the (t)Rump pseudo-nationalistic ideology. However, Christmas has not always been popular even among Christians. In 1647, the Puritan-led English Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas, replacing it with a day of fasting and considering it “a popish festival with no biblical justification”, and “a time of wasteful and immoral behavior.” On May 11, 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony legislature officially banned Christmas and gave anyone found celebrating it a fine of five shillings
“For preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction, by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God & offense of others, it is therefore ordered … that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by for-bearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offense five shillings, as a fine to the county.”
Cotton Mather, New England’s most influential religious leader, told his flock in 1712 that “the feast of Christ’s nativity is spent in reveling, dicing, carding, masking, and in all licentious liberty…by mad mirth, by long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude reveling!”
Most Western churches mark Dec. 25 for the liturgical celebration of Christ’s birth though the date is historically unreliable and most likely inaccurate. Many Eastern Orthodox churches mark the incarnation on Epiphany typically the first Sunday in January. Some, who are in the Puritan tradition make no big deal about it. Roman 14:5 tells us “one person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” That seems like a wise policy that spares making “much ado about nothing.” Sadly, Trump’s hijacking and distortion of the day to celebrate the wonder of the incarnation is far more damaging than any supposed “war on Christmas.” Slogans may pump up the crowds but it’s not the faith the church has confessed in the words “for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”
So then, either way, have a Merry Christmas, an incredible Incarnation, an effulgent Epiphany, and Happy Hanukkah or for any neo-pagans, a Super Saturnalia!
Places, practices and people form us. For many years, I looked at representations of the saints, recited the words of the liturgy and listened to the words of spiritual leaders. Sometimes I was bored, sometimes the words were tedious and made no sense and sometimes the presence of God shined through. Faith is more than cerebral. Faith is incarnate. Faith involves the senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Even if God does not dwell in buildings built by human hands, humans are shaped by the physicality of faith. This has always been the scandal of the Word made flesh and the nemesis of creation shunning gnosticism, past and present.
My faith was shaped in no small part by the visual beauty and the familiar words of prayer of years of worshiping at All Saints Episcopal Church and Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, AZ. My faith was also shaped by the people who I came to know as teachers and counselors – Paul Urbano, Ken Whitney, Anton Renna S.J., Al Miller S.J., “Sister” Mary, and the small prayer group that met Monday nights. They were able to listen and support a teenager trying to get through some tough times. I was also able to witness the Spirit firing up the church through the preaching & teaching of Dennis Bennett, Terry Fulham and Francis MacNutt. Those were years of hope about what the church could become that turned to disappointment as the ECUSA drifted farther and farther into irrelevance. However, over the years God was at work and I was able to encounter worship scholar Robert Webber, the Alpha evangelism program and most recently Wellspring in Englewood, CO an Anglican congregation that combines sound preaching, God glorifying music and a liturgy in which the words are prayed with sincerity and passion. Ancient & future worship is alive!
“We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.”
The Barmen Declaration (1934)
Robert Jeffress, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas is an unabashed Trump enthusiast. Jeffress preached to Trump on Inauguration Day from the Old Testament example of Nehemiah, the humble servant who leads the effort to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, endorsing Trump’s border wall since “God is not against building walls” and feeding his already inflated hubris by urging him to ignore his critics, stating “we have never had a president with as many natural gifts as you.” From what’s been seen so far, not only is this patently untrue considering the long line of predecessors but Trump does not need to have his grandiosity encouraged! Besides distorting and misapplying the Word of God that he is supposedly commissioned to steward faithfully, preacher Jeffress resorts to fawning over a man who is undeserving of praise, whether it’s his crudeness, especially towards women, his failing financial track record, fueling conspiracies and false allegations about birth certificates, eavesdropping and secret recordings, repeated blame shifting and demagoguery and demonization of the media and those who disagree or confront him about his distortions of reality.
On the 4th of July, at the “Celebrate Freedom Rally,” in that good old, Baptist patriotic amalgam of civil religion & American greatness, with a mega-flag along with his mega-Baptist choir, Jeffress called Trump “one of the great patriots of our modern era and a president who cherishes the sacrifice and service of those in our armed forces.” I suppose he was referring to Trump’s 5 deferments from serving in the Vietnam war or his petty tirades with the Gold Star Khan family or belittling of Sen. John McCain. Trump is not the only one who seems to have difficulty with distorting reality. It beggars the imagination how the good pastor could even consider Trump a great patriot. As for the song “Make America Great Again,” I’ll take “In Christ There is No East or West” any day.
It’s hard to take this silliness seriously. Sadly, Jeffress is sickeningly sincere. What’s missing from Jeffress’s messages, is Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom. The true gospel is greater than any one political party, political leader or country. It is for all people and all nations, none of which may claim special status. It is not limited to 4 years or 8 but eternal. Jeffress has joined the line of spiritual leaders who sell their birthright for a mega-mess of porridge, who join the ranks of court prophets, sycophants who abandon the truth and fidelity to God to rub shoulders with the mighty (1 Kings 22).
It would be great if this could be dismissed as a Southern Baptist aberration but the adulteration of anemic churchianity with politics, right, left or “alt,” subtly undermines and distorts the real work of the church. The true Christian faith is misrepresented. Since the baptism of Jesus, the gospel of his kingdom has thrived in or despite a variety of political environments. It does not need the repeal of the Johnson amendment to succeed. It does not rely on flag waving or coddling demagogues. It does require faithful men and women of integrity and boldness to refuse to worship a golden ego (Daniel 3) or a tempting political offer on a mountain peak (Matthew 4:8) when they see one.
Sounds like there was a ground swell refusal to allow denominational bureaucrats to stall and remain silent:
RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, June 13–14, 2017, decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we denounce and repudiate white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as of the devil; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we acknowledge that we still must make progress in rooting out any remaining forms of intentional or unintentional racism in our midst; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we earnestly pray, both for those who advocate racist ideologies and those who are thereby deceived, that they may see their error through the light of the Gospel, repent of these hatreds, and come to know the peace and love of Christ through redeemed fellowship in the Kingdom of God, which is established from every nation, tribe, people, and language.